This practically perfect early noir has a strong reputation and yet, while researching for this review, I was left with the feeling that it's underrated. The prestigious British Film Institute doesn't even include This Gun for Hire (1942) in its list of "10 Great American Film Noirs." (Yes, it would rank in my Top Ten.)
Alan Ladd became a star as anti-hero Raven, a contract killer who is double-crossed by his client. The film's opening scene tells us all we need to know about the quiet Raven. He takes in a stray kitten and feeds it milk. But when the cleaning lady (dressed like a showgirl) shoos away the cat, Raven grabs her, rips her dress, and slaps her backhanded across the face. Here is a man that is ruthless, but with a morsel of humanity buried deep inside. (Later, Raven tries to rationalize his affection for cats by claiming that they bring luck.)
Raven kills the innocent girlfriend.
Still, the screenplay by Albert Maltz and W. R. Burnett leaves no doubt that, first and foremost, Raven is a man that will do whatever is required. Knowing that a victim's innocent girlfriend can identify him, Raven shoots her in cold blood. Later, after vowing not to kill again, he does just that when trying to evade a policeman.
The plot hinges on a chance encounter when Raven and nightclub entertainer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) wind up sitting together on a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Raven is going to L.A. to find Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), an obvious middleman who hired Raven and then tipped off the police by paying the killer with stolen money. Raven's objective is to find out who Gates works for and then kill Gates and his employer.
Unknown to Raven, Ellen is also traveling to meet Gates, who owns The Neptune Club. A U.S. senator has informed Ellen that Gates is working for a powerful man who is selling a secret formula to the enemy. Ellen's mission is to find out the identity of Gates' employer.
Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.
The glue that holds the film together is the relationship between Raven and Ellen. From the outset, he is surprised by her kindness. When he steals $5 from her, she demands he return it, but then offers to give him $1. Raven admires her street smarts and, though he's careful never to show it, he undoubtedly finds her attractive. Most importantly, Raven trusts her--enough to describe his abusive childhood (if only in the context of a dream).
Ellen is touched by the fact this hardened killer is willing to confide his darkest secret to her. She is also attracted to his decisiveness and moxie when he rescues her from Gates' henchman. In many films, this relationship would have involved into an unlikely romance. But in This Gun for Hire, Ellen kisses Raven on the cheek and that's it. There are no looks of missed opportunities. Raven is simply not a man that falls in love easily (if at all). And Ellen truly loves her police detective boyfriend (Robert Preston).
Laird Cregar as Gates,
Despite the fine performances from the leads, Laird Cregar almost steals the film as Gates. He's a villain that's willing to send a hired gun to kill people, but wants no part of the actual event. When his henchman is describing how he will skilfully dispose of Ellen's body, Gates squirms uncomfortably and tells him to stop. Cregar provides the film's humor, but in a subtle way that never comes across as obvious comic relief. It's a performance that somehow reminded me of Vincent Price's turn as Shelby Carpenter in Laura (1944).
Director Frank Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz team up on a number of exciting visuals. The chase through the train yard and the drainage pipes may be the film's highlight, but there are clever bits throughout. My favorite may be a scene where the hotel maid goes to use a pay phone in a police-filled lobby, unaware that Raven is hiding there. He presses his gun against her side as she pretends to talk on the phone. Her phone dialogue consists of answers to his questions. It's a brilliant merger of smart dialogue and murky lighting.
Veronica Lake as Ellen.
John Seitz, by the way, would earn seven Oscar nominations for cinematography during his career. He served as the director of photography on a number of film noir classics, including Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Clock (1948), and Sunset Blvd. (1950).
This Gun for Hire was loosely based on Graham Greene's 1936 novel This Gun for Sale. James Cagney directed a remake in 1957 called Short Cut to Hell, which starred Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson. It was Cagney's only stint in the director's chair.