This Paramount picture is what back in the UCLA Cinema School we used to call a seminal film - it formed some of the main ideas in film noir and in later action films, particularly the James Bond franchise.
The whirlwind script, from an era more closely associated with Preston Sturges and Hope and Crosby comedies, mixes hardboiled Grahame Greene spy moves with some slick Paramount packaging. The casting gave fourth-billed Alan Ladd his big break and with glamour girl Veronica Lake created one of the forties' most popular romantic teams.
Even the title of This Gun for Hire is an improvement over the original. Faced with cleaning up a Grahame Greene novel for the screen, this story of a ruthless hit man (an MPAA no-no) could have been a waste of time. But the screenplay by major hitter W.R. Burnett and future Hollywood Ten All-Star Albert Maltz is a continuous stream of very modern narrative ideas - spy gags and story hooks that wouldn't become familiar until the spy craze that began fifteen years later with Dr. No and The Manchurian Candidate. Slippery hit man Raven tricks the cops and outfoxes the G-Men like a pro, even leaving savvy street kids in his wake as he eludes capture in pursuit of his prey. The snappy script sneaks in a number of racy lines, such as Robert Preston's rebuke to villain Laird Cregar, "Go milk a duck!"
The glamour nonsense is gotten over quickly. Veronica Lake's unlikely character - fianceé / singer/ magician / government agent - sings two musical numbers but spends the rest of her time dodging villains. She's fairly convincing when playing tag with Alan Ladd's Raven, a dangerous psycho who loves cats but manhandles women.
Baby-faced Alan Ladd is a key figure for the modern action hero, the American man of violence who would later take over from the masculine John Wayne-Gary Cooper straight shooters. He's the guy with the gun, but Maltz and Burnett also make him an emotional and physical cripple, a woman-hating infantile rattlesnake. We see him beat up Annie, the hotel maid (Pamela Blake) and shoot several people in cold blood, including a woman killed through a closed door. The script compensates by having him dote on kittens and be mesmerized by a crippled child. The childhood injury theme reflects his own mutilation at the hands of a vicious aunt in one of those formative traumas popular in the Hollywood Freud years.
Basically, if you consider the James Bond character a merciless thug, Raven is his obvious progenitor. Raven has many of the same qualities, but 007's fantasy world drops the the psychologizing and makes sure that Bond never has to threaten innocent women or shoot kids. Raven is surprisingly well-developed as a character, slowly letting down his guard to trust a woman for the first time in his life. It's a major effort for Raven to trust anyone, and the slick action ending (during an air-raid gas drill in downtown L.A.) wouldn't work if there wasn't that tension between Raven and his "only girl," Ellen.
Maltz and Burnett create in Raven a vision of the American he-man as an infantile emotional cripple. Raven seeks out cats not only because they're solitary hunters as he is, but because they give him the affection he desperately needs. Asleep on the night train to Los Angeles, we find him snuggled against Ellen's shoulder as if she were his mommy. 1 Finally, when an L.A.P.D. cop gets the drop on Raven, there's a tight shot focusing on the killer's face. It's the pouting face of a frustrated little boy, angry and confused. He shoots the policeman dead point-blank (oh, MPAA...!) and goes on the run, clearly prefiguring every punk juvenile delinquent who'd ever loose a pent-up rage against the world.
Raven's moral problems and need for others are complications unsuited to action fantasies that just want to create light entertainment out of killing and destruction. Later action vehicles would "uncomplicate" matters by leaving the heroes as trigger-happy killers with no psychological depth whatsoever. Despite the Cold War rationalizing, James Bond does what he does, and that's it.
This Gun for Hire puts Raven in a number of very 007 situations, trying to escape a large industrial complex through a drain pipe and penetrating a fortified office building by stealth and guile. Evil industrialist Alvin Brewster's electronic doors are turned against him, and the villain tries to kill Raven with a Bond-like gun diguised as a pen. In his wheelchair, Brewster reminds us of a Frank Capra bigshot villain, uncovered as a traitorous snake. 2
Backing up the breathless action are Robert Preston's thankless-role hero, and Laird Cregar's cowardly villain who everyone calls fat at one point or another. Cregar would find several years of fame at Fox playing The Lodger and other mysterious characters. Through fascinating articles in Video Watchdog, I learned that he desperately tried to lose weight in a bid to be accepted as a leading man.
Tully Marshall is a wheezing Mr. Big bad guy and young Marc Lawrence (Cloak and Dagger) an effective second-string menace. Standing out in the first reels is Olin Howland as a deadpan talent agent unimpressed by knockout babes like Veronica Lake. Howlin is best remembered for his roles as the drunk in Them! and the old codger who gets himself eaten by The Blob, his last film.
Universal's DVD of This Gun for Hire is a good encoding from what I understand are some very iffy Paramount source materials in Universal's vault. Many of the pre 1948 Paramount pix (owned by Universal for the last forty years or so) are backed up only by inferior safety dupe negatives made in the early 1950s - everything else has been thrown away. This is a tragedy as Paramount's 30s and 40s pictures retained longer than any studio the 'silver screen' look that can only be seen in nitrate prints. The Paramount house style stood out in the archive prints we had at UCLA in the 1970s. Few if any are probably screenable today.
The picture looks okay - video tweaking can do a lot, but the soundtrack is overcompressed just enough to become "crunchy," with aural details processed away. Most of the dialogue is clear, but wheezy old Mr. Brewster's whisperings are hard to make out, and some of the music is slightly distorted.
But that's no reason to avoid This Gun for Hire in the Universal Noir Collection - it plays fine. I'm eager to see if Universal comes up with more terrific Uni and Paramount noirs next year: They've got a lot to choose from: Christmas Holiday, The Dark Mirror, Kiss the Blood off my Hands, Ride the Pink Horse, Shakedown, Uncle Harry, The Accused, Among the Living, The Blue Dahlia, Double Indemnity (delayed, I hope, to make a better version), The Glass Key, I Walk Alone, and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Universal may also be holding original elements for the public domain eyesore, Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street. They could do a lot worse than bringing it out in its original brilliance.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
This Gun for Hire rates:
1. Reportedly Ladd was so
small (normally no handicap for a star) that they had to put him on a box to play love scenes with
his leading ladies. But Ms. Lake was said to be pretty short herself.
2. I think I read where the WW2-sabotage references were added to the
script at the last minute. Veronica Lake delivers a couple of patriotic lines about nasty turncoats
selling deadly Gas formulas to the enemy. In today's context it's more than ironic. All those Weapons
of Mass Destruction that can't be located in Iraq, were sold to our potential enemies by Brewster-like Washington
bureaucrats eager to help out the weapons industry ... it's all Made in America, folks.