This Gun for Hire (1942)
March 22, 2021 11:16 PM - Subscribe

Sadistic killer-for-hire Raven becomes enraged when his latest job is paid off in marked bills. Vowing to track down his double-crossing boss, nightclub executive Gates, Raven sits beside Gates' lovely new employee, Ellen, on a train out of town. Although Ellen is engaged to marry the police lieutenant who's hunting down Raven, she decides to try and set the misguided hit man straight as he hides from the cops and plots his revenge.

Sadistic killer-for-hire Raven (Alan Ladd) becomes enraged when his latest job is paid off in marked bills. Vowing to track down his double-crossing boss, nightclub executive Gates (Laird Cregar), Raven sits beside Gates' lovely new employee, Ellen (Veronica Lake), on a train out of town. Although Ellen is engaged to marry the police lieutenant (Robert Preston) who's hunting down Raven, she decides to try and set the misguided hit man straight as he hides from the cops and plots his revenge.

Bosley Crowther: One shudders to think of the career which Paramount must have in mind for Alan Ladd, a new actor, after witnessing the young gentleman's debut as a leading player in that studio's "This Gun for Hire," which came to the Paramount yesterday. Obviously, they have tagged him to be the toughest monkey loose on the screen. For not since Jimmy Cagney massaged Mae Clarke's face with a grapefruit has a grim desperado gunned his way into cinema ranks with such violence as does Mr. Ladd in this fast and exciting melodrama.Keep your eye peeled for this Ladd fellow; he's a pretty-boy killer who likes his work. "How do you feel," asks Laird Cregar, "when you are doing a job like this?"—the reference being to the slaughter of a certain party on a commission from Mr. Cregar. "I feel fine," Mr. Ladd mutters, without a twitch of his handsome face. And that should have been a warning to Mr. Cregar, representing a chemical concern, not to double-cross Mr. Ladd on the payment of his killer's fee.But Mr. Cregar does double-cross him, and thereby hangs the tale. For Mr. Ladd then goes gunning for his erstwhile employer, who happens to be engaged in the manufacture of poison gas for "the enemy." And, during his obstinate stalking, he falls in with Veronica Lake, who is also shadowing Mr. Cregar for a Senate investigating committee. And together they have some truly hair-raising adventures and close shaves until Mr. Cregar and his boss are finally filled full of assorted holes.Melodrama, straight and vicious—that's what this picture is. But it is a good cut above the average, both in its writing and its tensile quality. Frank Tuttle, the director, has paced it with morbid prowling and headlong bursts, and has kept his actors within fairly reasonable bounds. Miss Lake is a competent customer, and handles her men with cool disdain. Mr. Cregar is a double portion of deceit and cowardice, edging his characterization with a touch of elegance. And Robert Preston is what he should be as a cop who also participates in the chase. But Mr. Ladd is the buster; he is really an actor to watch. After this stinging performance, he has something to live tip to—or live down.

Kelechi Ehenulo: 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). . .

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. . .

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.

Ken Hanke: Frank Tuttle is a filmmaker you don’t hear much about — possibly because of the former Communist Party member naming names for HUAC — and yet he has an impressive filmography dating back to the early 1920s. He was one of the few silent directors who made a smooth transition to talkies, becoming something of an innovator in that transitional period from silence to sound. Maybe it’s a case of him simply turning out too many movies in too many genres — making him more a craftsman than an artist — but at his best, Tuttle was just about as good as any Hollywood director. This Gun for Hire (1942) is Tuttle at his very best. Indeed, it’s a landmark film for a number of reasons, not the least of which was turning Alan Ladd into a major movie star in what would seem to be the impossible role of a psychotic hired killer. Strangely — and unfortunately — the film doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and isn’t much revived these days.

posted by Carillon (2 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This was fun enough, but man I was really struck by Laird Cregar, I thought he stole every scene he was in.
posted by Carillon at 11:16 PM on March 22, 2021

Interesting coincidence as I just rewatched this recently. I largely liked this, the musical numbers are a bit out of place but are fun, the lead wheelchair bound villain equal parts Henry Ford and Mr. Burns is great, I think the wartime propaganda elements make sense for the time but do derail some of the narrative. Of the Ladd / Lake collaborations I think Blue Dahlia works best for me but this one is entertaining.

Laird Cregar is really great in general (and died too young at 30) but in this film how he looms over the fairly small Ladd and Lake just adds to his menace and strangeness. If you liked him here check out his final role in Hangover Square which I think is his best work. His first credited role, a more comedic one compared to his more famous villainous roles, as Pierre Radisson's (played by Paul Muni) brother-in-law Gooseberry (his real life actual name) in the largely ahistorical historical film Hudson's Bay is fun as well.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:47 AM on March 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

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