Hit man Philip Raven, who's kind to children and cats, kills a blackmailer and is paid off by traitor Willard Gates in "hot" money. Meanwhile, pert entertainer Ellen Graham, girlfriend of police Lieut. Crane (who's after Raven) is enlisted by a Senate committee to help investigate Gates. Raven, seeking Gates for revenge, meets Ellen on the train; their relationship gradually evolves from that of killer and potential victim to an uneasy alliance against a common enemy.
Veronica Lake ... Ellen Graham
Robert Preston ... Det. Michael Crane
Laird Cregar ... Willard Gates
Alan Ladd ... Philip Raven
Tully Marshall ... Alvin Brewster
Marc Lawrence ... Tommy
Olin Howland ... Blair Fletcher (as Olin Howlin)
Roger Imhof ... Senator Burnett
Pamela Blake ... Annie
Frank Ferguson ... Albert Baker
Victor Kilian ... Drew
Patricia Farr ... Ruby
Harry Shannon ... Steve Finnerty
Charles C. Wilson ... Police Captain
Mikhail Rasumny ... Slukey
This is a straight-forward, linear, quick-moving story based on a much more interesting book. But it's still an entertaining movie, and probably close to required viewing if you enjoy noir and/or Forties movies.
Raven (Alan Ladd) is a hired killer, evidently without remorse or nerves, who is paid to knock off a blackmailer. The blackmailer was trying to take to the cleaners a corrupt industrialist who was coincidentally helping the enemy. (This is during WWII.) However, Raven is paid in counterfeit bills on the assumption the police will catch him when he spends the money. He discovers the plot and decides to take out the guy who hired him and the fellow, the industrialist, who was behind it all.
The movie bills Veronica Lake and Robert Preston above the title, Laird Cregar just below the title, and Alan Ladd last in big type as "Introducing Alan Ladd." Some introduction; according to IMDb, Ladd had already appeared in more than 40 films in unbilled and minor parts.
This was Ladd's breakthrough movie and he's very good in it. I don't think he was much of an actor, but he had a lot of star presence, especially in the movies he made in the Forties. There was always something passive but potentially dangerous about him. His looks could have kept him in the pretty boy category, but for whatever reason didn't. Veronica Lake, for me, is something of an acquired taste, but for whatever reason she and Ladd made an effective pairing that was repeated several times. Laird Cregar played the heavy, and he was an interesting actor. Big and fleshy, he was something of a Raymond Burr type but more versatile. Robert Preston is seldom mentioned in regard to this movie and this must have ticked him off. Here's a guy who usually played best friend of the lead, gets a good part as the lead in a solid movie -- and winds up being over-shadowed by Ladd.
The first five minutes or so of the movie are among the most efficient I've come across in establishing a major player's character and complexities. We first see Raven waking up in his rented rooms and checking the clock. Nothing out of the ordinary there. In very short order, however, he's taken a gun out, helped a stray kitten get into his room and given it some food, slapped hard and full in the face a maid who tried to kick out the cat, showed up at the blackmailer's place where he meets the blackmailer (who was supposed to be alone); the blackmailer has his "secretary" with him so he just kills them both; on the way out a little girl on the stairs asks him to get her ball which has rolled away; she sees his face, he obviously thinks about shooting her, too -- but gets the ball for her and leaves. In just a few minutes Raven's cold ruthlessness and his conflicts are established, and so is a sort of sympathy for him. These first few minutes, in my view, are what make the movie work.
Frank Tuttle is one of those directors (like William Seiter) who is not consistently good, but who could do a terrific job now and then that retains our admiration. Seiter directed Laurel & Hardy in their best feature film, THE SONS OF THE DESERT (and turned in an above average job with the Marx Brothers in ROOM SERVICE). Tuttle did this film noir classic, and did it well. Based on a novel (or, as the author called it, an "entertainment") by Graham Greene, Tuttle made a star of Alan Ladd, and created the first of a series of films co-starring Ladd and Veronica Lake (as his cool, opposite number). He was ably abetted by a good cast of character actors: Laird Cregar, Tully Marshall, Robert Preston (at the start of his career), Marc Lawrence.... It was a terrific little thriller.
Laird Cregar's Willard Gates is one of the funniest neurotics in film noir. An overweight lady's man, he seems to go in both directions: using his money and nightclub to pick up women, and yet being a trembling tub of lard who enjoys reading "Naughty Paris at Night" while eating a box of chocolates in his private bedroom on his train. Cregar's Gates is augmented by his chauffeur - bodyguard - factotum Tommy, who has a wicked sense of ghoulish humor, and is able to make his queasy boss go nuts with fear just by describing a possible method of getting rid of Lake's prospectively dead body tied with cat gut that would disintegrate in a month (allowing her body to rise in a river, and leave her death a mystery. "Cat gut, what a horrible word!", quivers Gates. Marvelous - just look at Lawrence's grin as he speaks. He knows what he's doing.
The novel is a peculiar problem, not too frequently mentioned in discussing the film. It was set in 1935 in the midlands of England. At the beginning Raven is shown going to the office of a man who turns out to be Europe's leading peace advocate. He comes in using a letter from an unknown person. The peace advocate is happy at the recognition given to him by the letter's author and sits down to read it. In a moment Raven kills the man and then his secretary (who is a witness). This is changed in the movie to the murder of Baker, a blackmailer, and his girlfriend by Raven. The letter is from an important industrialist and munition dealer - Sir Marcus. His associate is the middle man between Sir Marcus and Raven, as Gates is in the film. But it is not in southern California in 1942 (and not dealing with treason with Japan). Instead Greene's villain is planning to help cause a new European War, for his profit.
Who is Sir Marcus? How is he different from the industrialist played by Tully Marshall? Marshall is a traitor for profit working for the Japanese Empire. Sir Marcus was Jewish.
Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were the two greatest English Catholic novelists of the twentieth century, but in different ways. Greene's novels dealt with the issues of good and evil in us all, usually told in stories of crime or spies. Waugh wrote of a fading Catholic English aristocracy, and had a masterful sense of comedy. They complement each other as writers. Both were deserving of Nobel Prize recognition, and both failed to achieve it. Other Englishmen did get the prize (Shaw, William Golding), but they never did - though repeatedly they were recommended for it. The possible reason was their open anti-Semitism. Waugh's novels are full of Jewish stereotypes, like Augustus Fagin in DECLINE AND FALL. Greene did the same, with Sir Marcus and Colleoni in BRIGHTON ROCK. The only difference is that Greene (in later years) edited out the anti-Jewish sentiments in the novels. But if you get the original novel you have Raven (a murderer-for-hire, mind you) telling off Sir Marcus about his ancestry before shooting him. The screenplay keeps to the storyline, with the American and non-religious changes. It was all to the good, but we all should be aware of Greene's religious bigotry.
The film that launched Alan Ladd's career, This Gun For Hire is a very short film like the earlier Public Enemy which gave James Cagney his stardom. This would be the normal length of a B film, but it definitely gets all it wants to say in its brief running time.
Essentially we have three stories where all the principal players get brought together in the end. The first involves Robert Preston investigating a reported payroll robbery of the firm that Tully Marshall is the president of. Note that I said 'reported robbery.' The second involves his girl friend, entertainer Veronica Lake being recruited by no one less than a United States Senator to get the goods on one of Marshall's top aides, Laird Cregar who they think is doing some fifth column work at the behest of Marshall. Finally we have contract killer Alan Ladd who's hired by Cregar to bump off Frank Ferguson who is blackmailing Marshall as to his treasonous activities. Preston, Ladd, and Lake don't know they are all on the same case, but by the end of the film they do.
Alan Ladd became Paramount's answer to Humphrey Bogart as a star of action/adventure films and noir films. This Gun for Hire launched his career. He was enormously popular through the Forties, Paramount's biggest star after Crosby and Hope. He played cynical tough guys in modern films, but then branched into westerns where for the most part he was the gallant hero. In fact the ultimate gallant white knight hero in Shane.
His part as Raven is a difficult one, yet he pulls it off. He's a cold blooded contract killer, one of the earliest ever portrayed as a film protagonist. Yet he's human and you see flashes of it, his concern for cats. As a cat lover, I can sure identify with that. Raven is also one of the earliest characters in cinema who talks about child abuse making him what he is. Groundbreaking when you think about it.
Next to Ladd, the biggest kudos have to go to Laird Cregar, borrowed from 20th Century Fox to play Willard Gates. Gates is a top company executive with Marshall's firm which is a defense contractor which is why the Senate is interested in him. He's basically a jerk who thinks he's so clever. Veronica Lake gets to him real easy because of his weakness for the nightclub scene. And he really doesn't take the full measure of Raven, even though the audience is very aware of how deadly he is.
When you think about it what Cregar and Marshall do is unbelievably stupid. They hire Ladd to kill Ferguson and then pay him with hot money, from the alleged robbery. Why would you do that? Chances are in the rackets they're involved in, they might have need of his services in the future. Not a guy to get mad at you. In fact their double cross is what sets the whole film plot in motion.
Moral is never double cross a guy who says and means that "I'm my own police."
This Gun for Hire was Director Frank Tuttle's finest film. He was a contract director for Paramount who did a whole bunch of films with their various stars in the Thirties and Forties. When he hadn't worked in a while, Alan Ladd got him a job directing him in Hell On Frisco Bay while he was at Warner Brothers and Tuttle also directed A Cry In the Night which Ladd produced. Ladd remembered and was grateful to Tuttle for helping break through into top star ranks. Ladd was like John Wayne that way, ever ready to help a colleague down on his luck.
Veronica Lake is recruited by a U.S. Senator with a fictitious name, but in fact there was a committee looking into all kinds of things like this in the Senate in regard to the conduct of the war. It was headed by a Senator from Missouri named Harry Truman who went on to higher office. I wonder if Truman liked This Gun for Hire? Veronica Lake got a big boost in her career. She and Ladd became a classic screen team as a result of this film.
This film is one great cinematic classic, so important to so many careers and still keeps you on the edge of your seat today.