There’s nothing quite like watching a film go through an emotional whiplash in its opening scene. One minute, Alan Ladd’s Philip Raven affectionately strokes a cat that enters his hotel room through a nearby window. The next, he rips the cleaning lady’s dress and violently slaps her when she assumed the cat was an uninvited nuisance and a stray.
It’s one of many polarising dichotomies in Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire. Based on the book by Graham Greene, it’s a film that centralises an irredeemable character yet tries to empathise with him at every corner. It’s a film that is very much of its time in terms of societal and gender attitudes, yet also a conversation about male masculinity and Raven’s emotionally repressed, asexual remit where ‘appearing soft’ is a weakness (and he actively goes out to prove how ‘manly’ he is).
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And it’s also a film where the cold-blooded world of spies and espionage serve to amplify a cynical yet ruthless nature within Raven’s personality, where killing is justified and necessary. How does he feel when he does the things he does, when asked by peppermint-popping Willard Gates (Laird Cregar)? “I feel fine,” he says. Make no mistake, Raven is a nasty piece of work.
It’s an odd and conflicting sensation to wrestle with. This Gun for Hire hits nearly every button in its film noir repertoire; an evolving mystery, the femme fatale beauty, atmospheric mood lighting, plenty of moral ambiguity and acts of betrayal. But on this occasion our anti-hero, lone wolf protagonist is an assassin, overshadowed by a dark past that has shaped him into an unnerving killer. It’s a radical departure from the familiar noir beats where the lead is a typical private investigator (The Big Sleep), or perhaps its most famous example Double Indemnity, where Fred MacMurray played an insurance salesman.
But it’s a fascinating conversation that This Gun for Hire has with its audiences when it’s fighting hard to heroically humanise Raven, and comparatively suggest ‘he can’t be that bad’. It has the aura of a Hays Code style sentiment that plays right through to its dramatic (yet punishable) ending. For example: he can’t be that bad – he loves cats as they’re symbolic of his lonely existence. He can’t be that bad – he helped a young girl in leg braces retrieve her lost ball, when only moments before he had killed the target and his female secretary (and she wasn’t supposed to be there, but he kills her anyway).
There’s a lot to unpack, and the film doesn’t make its unsettling argument easy to digest as it wraps its head around the contradictory enigma of Raven’s devious intent and how the film reconciles that duality. And perhaps this is the very reason why This Gun for Hire has endured for as long as it has. It’s a complex noir where rooting for a ‘hero’ doesn’t have a clear line of sight.
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Moral objectivity (or lack of it) aside, it doesn’t take away from how captivating Ladd’s performance is. For a film that made him a star, it’s not hard to see why when his portrayal of Raven is fuelled by stone-cold trust issues (particularly around women) whilst quietly inhabiting a menacing demeanour whenever he’s on-screen. The fact that this type of archetypal character was imagined by the same writer who gave us the classic Brighton Rock shows his apt willingness to capture the ugliness of the world and the unscrupulous characters that inhabit it which Tuttle brings to life.
It ties in with the subversive nature of the film – a backstabbing tale of revenge involving secret chemical formulas set against the ideological backdrop of wartime America. Our 40s-style Terminator fulfils, a job only to be embroiled in a ‘game of loose-ends’ where Gates and his boss Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall) are selling secrets to the highest bidder, or – specifically – against America’s interests.
Considering the book was written and published before America’s involvement in the Second World War, This Gun for Hire is a stark reminder at how Hollywood retooled narratives to capture the patriotic mood of the nation; the same construct that’s viewable in Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes adventures for example. Here the existential fears of war and propaganda, traitorous threats, and everyone ‘doing their part’ for the war effort is a prominent tune rung throughout, but doesn’t escape the seediness of villainous capitalists in wanting to make a profit. And that historical exploration is reinforced by film scholar and researcher Craig Ian Mann’s essay which features in the accompanying booklet for this brilliant 4K restoration.
Amongst the film’s dark encapsulation of criminality, the introduction of Veronica Lake’s Ellen Graham provides some levity, through song and sleight of hand magic tricks. Some would say that it doesn’t fit the brooding seriousness the film emits, but because of her classy on-screen presence, she is the ‘femme fatale’ in this film who goes against the expected archetype. For instance, her savviness brings immediate attention when she clocks Raven’s thievery when he steals money from her purse. Her acute awareness of her environment allows her tactile skills to be utilised by leaving a trail for the police to follow. Her occasional one-liners can steal an entire scene. But she’s given licence to thrive outside of domesticity where she’s recruited to spy on Gates. She provides the heart when the film is constantly questioning its soul.
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The film’s greatest appeal hinges on Ladd and Lake’s interplay, rewarding because of how non-traditional their relationship is. He is naturally distrusting, and she has a boyfriend detective (played by Robert Preston) who she intends to marry. It’s ‘opposites attract’ but it’s a relationship devoid of any romantic inklings or seductions, born out of a tumultuous and convergent path. It’s cleverly restrained and terse even if its application is heavily reliant on sympathising Raven and getting him to think about ‘the bigger picture’ which serves towards its climactic ‘cat and mouse’ ending.
The 4K remastered disc includes a fascinating audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin who provides an in-depth analysis of the film by drawing parallels to Greene’s book. To the surprise of no-one, Greene’s book is far nastier than what the film presents in a somewhat sanitised preservation of its glamourised leading stars. The two radio adaptations recorded at the Lux Radio Theatre (which features Cecil B DeMille as host) and The Screen Guild Theatre are welcome additions to the set. And despite its truncated nature, it works surprisingly well, especially the Screen Guild version where there is greater agency given to Veronica Lake as narrator as well as a performer.
As one of the pioneers of film noir, This Gun for Hire is an essential watch, purely for how it differentiates from other noir films. The deliberate, off-kilter experience forces its audience to question the shifting moral spectrum of its characters, backed by two outstanding performances in Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. At 81 minutes, the film’s breezy exposition falls into the occasional pitfall of predictability, and its mystery is swiftly and conveniently wrapped up. But one thing is for sure, it leaves a distinct impression and is guaranteed to be a conversation starter.
This Gun for Hire is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.