Monday, December 12, 2011

Reeling Backward: "This Gun for Hire" (1942)

Alan Ladd became a star in the most unlikely way: Playing a heartless killer in 1942's "This Gun for Hire." While ostensibly a supporting part -- 29-year-old Ladd received fourth billing, below Laird Crager -- the role of Philip Raven is one of the most enduring in all of film noir

Raven is a man who, as the trailer dubbed him, "kills for the love of killing." This is not quite right, as he is a paid assassin who kills without hesitation or remorse, but doesn't appear to have a huge emotional reaction in the act of doing so. The opening scene, where he casually shoots a scientist selling a secret formula -- and then guns down his wife to boot -- sets the hard-bitten tone for the rest of the movie.

With his carefully unmodulated voice, steely unwavering gaze and icy cold demeanor, Ladd gave Raven unmistakable presence and a pitch-dark form of charisma. Love him or hate him, you can't take your eyes off him.

Veronica Lake is supposed to be the star of the picture, but it's a curiously passive lead role. She spends most of the movie in Raven's thrall, as his traveling companion and prisoner. It's more of a partnership than a true thug/victim relationship, with Ellen Graham appealing to Raven's better nature -- apparently being the only person who even believes there is such a thing.

Ellen's an interesting gal, part moll and part golden-hearted enchantress. She's a showgirl who sings while performing magic tricks (which Lake performs herself, and ably) whose fellah is a police detective, Michael Crane (Robert Preston). The copper is a wet rag compared to the black charm of Raven, and for a long time it seems likely that she really is "Raven's girl," as the police dub her.

Directed by Frank Tuttle from a screenplay by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, based on the novel "A Gun for Sale" by Graham Greene, "This Gun for Hire" is a great-looking film with lots of inky cinematography -- particularly in a brief sequence inside a gasworks factory, where the shadows of machinery envelop and bisect the people inside.

Raven spends most of the movie on the lam, but doesn't seem particularly rattled about it. He's listed in the newspapers as the "broken-wristed killer," identifiable by his left hand that juts out at an ungainly angle from his forearm. (Late in the movie we learn this injury was inflicted by an abusive aunt, who became his first murder victim when he slit her throat in retaliation.) Oddly, this deformity doesn't seem to affect Raven's physical ability, including pulling himself up over a brick wall into the gasworks.

The main antagonist is Cregar as Willard Gates, who seems to have a hand in both the entertainment and industrial worlds, picking out Ellen for his nightclub. He hires Raven to off the scientist, but he's acting at the behest of an elderly, sickly senator who wants to sell the formula for a poisonous gas to the Japanese. (This plot is revealed very late in the story, suggesting it was stitched on for war propaganda purposes.)

Gates pays Raven in marked bills, which soon puts Crane and the other cops on his tail. Not being the forgiving sort -- see the aunt -- he vows to hunt down Gates and kill him. Ellen learns of the Japanese scheme, and enlists Raven to give up his revenge in order to foil the plan.

Cregar is an interesting story. He had a brief but busy career, making 16 films between 1940 and 1945 --including playing the pirate Henry Morgan in "The Black Swan" -- before dying at the age of 31. He was actually the same age as Ladd when they made "This Gun for Hire" together, but Cregar nearly always played older characters in their 40s and up.

A looming physical presence -- 6-foot-3 with a barrel chest and shoulders like a linebacker -- Cregar struggled with his weight all his life, rarely less than 300 pounds in most of his screen roles. Tuttle is careful to avoid have Ladd and Cregar standing right next to other, since the diminutive Ladd (5'6" by most accounts) would have a hard time looking threatening next to a man twice his size. When they finally do appear together, Raven has his gun trained on Gates while wearing a gas mask, which make shim scary enough.

Cregar quickly lost over 100 pounds for his final role, and the strain on his system killed him a few days after undergoing stomach surgery. What a bright light snuffed out so early.

Preston was even younger, just 24 when this film came out, and Lake was already a big star at 20. She and Ladd would go on to make several more pictures together, forming one of the Golden Age's most iconic screen duos.

3 stars out of four

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