Friday, February 20, 2009

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Editor's note: Alexander writes a movie blog that's quickly becoming very popular. Coleman's Corner in Cinema is constantly updated and always entertaining.

Written by Alexander Coleman

Frank Tuttle's early film noir, This Gun for Hire, made Alan Ladd a star in the role of Philip Raven, a mentally unhinged, and psychologically disturbed contract killer. As Raven, Ladd would employ the particular assets that he would continue to bring to his best roles: a laconic mysteriousness and nuanced, cerebral lethality of presence that distinguished him as a rara avis among the quotidian ordinary. Having sojourned for a decade in colorlessly inconsequential parts in approximately forty films, Ladd was finally given an opportunity to demonstrate his captivating talent. Ladd's commanding ubiety in This Gun for Hire is established by Tuttle in the star's first scene, which likewise begins to etch the dour artistry of lighting Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz. In a scene to be mimicked by Jean-Pierre Melville for his Le Samouraï (1967), the insularly framed lone gunman stays in a slightly unsettlingly empty room. In This Gun For Hire, Ladd's Raven is loving toward only one kind of creature: cats, and when Tuttle's camera captures him smiling, in two of the three cases the predominantly uncharacteristic grin is aroused by the sight of a feline. In Le Samouraï, Delon's killer showed love for a pet canary. (Delon would later love cats playing a ruthless spy in the Michael Winner thriller Scorpio.) Le Samouraï starred Alain Delon in the role from which Ladd's Raven serves as a template, whose similar first name draws an unintended comparison as well.

Tuttle's mise-en-scene is often rather precise, and is repeatedly marked by dazzlingly expressionist chiaroscuro lighting. As Raven holds his tool of the trade, his handgun, the low-angle camera angle accentuates the man's isolation and power all at once. The shadowy lines that span the wall behind him, and framing square and triangular shapes in the wall and ceiling, connote a subtle gradation of entrapment and doom. As piano playing gently seeps into the room, the killer behaves like a man apart, and when a pushy maid attempts to shoo the kitten away from the room's windowsill, he snaps, spinning the woman around and slapping her. As the film continues, Raven's affinity for cats juxtaposed with his moderately bemused, glassy-eyed distrust of and dislike for people will serve as an important implement of narrative and character indicia. In this instance the episode serves to highlight the character's respectful admiration for the feline as solitary animal fighting for its own survival. Later, as he strokes a cat, he will remark that a cat brings luck—which is one of the only universal things he believes in as a force of aid.

This Gun for Hire (1942)
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When asked by the effeminate and rotund man who has last hired him to eliminate a chemist how he feels when working, he callously replies, “I feel fine.” Ladd's delivery is flawlessly deadpan, portraying Raven's coldblooded demeanor as a sort of deeply ingrained psychical state rather than mere remoteness of attitude and feeling. Ladd's physical conciseness and verbal succinctness endows the character's most consistent attributes with a naturalness that seamlessly matches the vision of screenwriters Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett in their fascinating adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, "A Gun for Sale."Greene's novel was set in Great Britain, but while the Los Angeles setting significantly changes some of the atmospheric qualities of the film from Greene's book, Tuttle conjures a similar percolating quality to the narrative developments. Tuttle does this by utilizing the visual language of cinema that helped to signify the oncoming flurry of aesthetically attractive and visually communicative 1940s Hollywood film noirs.

That man with whom Raven converses after rubbing out the chemist is Willard Gates, played with an effective amalgamation of smarmy unctuousness and bubbly jocoseness by Laird Cregar. Gates is a manager at the Nitro Chemical Corps. who moonlights as manager of the Neptune nightclub, where he finds himself enchanted by an auditioning gorgeous blonde magician Ellen Graham, sensuously brought to life by Veronica Lake. Graham is clandestinely working for United States Senator Burnett (Roger Imhof), who believes the Nitro Chemical Corps. is guilty of selling secrets to America's wartime enemies. Aboard a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Raven and Graham find themselves linked to one another when they sit next to one another. The noirish emphasis on luckless circumstance and seemingly random misfortune is palpably rendered. When, at the twenty-nine minute mark, Graham attempts to make contact with Raven, he fittingly asks her the future question of Travis Bickle's from Taxi Driver: “You talkin' to me?”

Tuttle's mise-en-scene is especially sharp in the early and late stretches of the film. A midway excursion into an estate with a thunder-and-lightning storm appears like a horror film. When Raven and Graham are on the run together, Tuttle's camera examines them as an impossible pairing—he is a stoic killer for hire, she is the girlfriend of a police detective named Michael Crane (a feckless Robert Preston) trying to solve a robbery from which Gates has paid Raven with marked bills. The compilation of multiple threads tying into one knot is one of the more satisfying, but possibly distracting aspects of This Gun for Hire's narrative. As Raven and Graham are physically adjoined to one another, with Raven on the run from the police as he attempts to exact revenge for Gates' double-crossing, This Gun for Hire slows down and the screenplay endeavors to explain the chief source of Raven's psychological trauma. Visually and thematically dark, the scene is lit with expressionistic intensity. As Raven and Graham look out through the gaps between wooden planks in a filthy warehouse window, the light skips down diagonally on the two. As Raven describes a recurring dream in which a tyrannical woman continually beat him as a child.

“I dreamed about a woman. She used to beat me—to get the bad blood out of me, she said. My old man was hanged. My mother died right after that and I went to live with that woman. My aunt. She beat me from the time I was three to when I was fourteen. One day she caught me reaching for a piece of chocolate... she was saving it for a cake... a crummy piece of chocolate. She hit me—with a red-hot flat-iron! Smashed my wrist with it. I grabbed a knife—I let her have it! In the throat! They stuck a label on me: killer. Shoved me into a reform school and they beat me there, too. But I'm glad I killed her. What's the use? [There is] nothing I can do.”

This legitimate effort to create melodrama out of the hitman's origins of spiritual, mental and physical (the permanent scarring on his left wrist is used by the police to identify him) disrepair and wounds is successful in creating an empathetic attachment to the character when he continues to run away from the police. As the police struggle to locate the elusive Raven, the film takes a pessimistic but almost lightheartedly comic shot at the cops as bungling and ineffective. Raven rather easily escapes the clutches of the cops who know he is aboard when he exits the train. Over the course of the film, policemen make tragicomic mistakes when attempting to capture Raven. In one such especially personal confrontation, a lone policeman tries to handcuff Raven late in the film, only to fatally underestimate the killer, who shoots him to death for his trouble. Quite late in the film, as Raven tries to satisfy his blood lust, he finds himself looking directly at Detective Crane, who he could have effortlessly eliminated—but he knows he is Graham's man (“You're a copper's girl,” he once dismissively sneers)—and consequently spares him. Graham's gentleness and kindness toward Raven endears her to him and when a villain suggests she ought to be killed, Raven furiously comments that she has been “nice to me,” a most sparse—and perhaps, the film seems to subtly suggest, nonexistent—way in which someone has ever treated him. With a plot that veers perilously close to making This Gun for Hire another propaganda picture—in which even the stone-hearted assassin is finally moved to defend his country from despicable traitors—the screenplay and Tuttle's interpretation of it keep the dilemmas and choices personal and almost disconnected from politics. As with other Greene novels, it is the personal that informs the politics of the story, and This Gun for Hire is finally, gratifyingly, no different.

This Gun for Hire's climax would also be borrowed by Jean-Pierre Melville for his Le Samouraï as the hunted killer is chased on an ominous rail bridge. As Ladd's Raven once again outmaneuvers the police, Tuttle captures the entire chase sequence in a bravura depiction of action. The memorable long shot of Raven jumping off the rail bridge onto a moving train is exciting, and the interest and care the audience has for Raven makes it genuinely meaningful. This Gun for Hire is an early film noir and its limitations and imperfections—some of the supporting players give uninspired performances and Tuttle's direction is somewhat lax in the film's midsection, as is the screenplay—while not to be overlooked, should be considered with fairness when assessing it. As such, this is a most thoughtful, interesting and important film.



  1. Veronica Lake was top-billed and rightfully so. She's at her best here!

  2. Nice piece: appreciate the work put in.

    Steve--dropped a blog post on NOTW over at:

  3. Does anyone know where the train station stake out scene was filmed.?

    Great article but he didn't mention the brutal killing of the contact/blackmailer and his "secretary" was really shocking for its time.


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