The first of four collaborations between Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, This Gun For Hire bears little resemblance to the novel on which it’s based, but is a brilliant film in its own right, and a bit of a game-changer for the film-noir genre.
Ladd plays Raven, a cold-blooded, professional hitman who is double-crossed by his employer, the duplicitous Gates (Laird Cregar). Pursued by the police, Raven skips town, kidnapping nightclub singer Ellen (Veronica Lake) on the way. As they spend more time together, their opinions of each other soften, even as her cop fiancé (Robert Preston) closes in on them, and Raven plans his revenge.
In his first starring role, Alan Ladd is perfectly cast. Incredibly self assured and cool, he laid the groundwork for every onscreen hitman to follow, from Alain Delon in Le Samourai to Jean Reno in Leon. A taciturn, ruthless assassin who nevertheless has a soft spot for cats, he makes Raven both cool and believably unhinged. Nevertheless, he’s charismatic enough to make his later change in heart believably convincing, and he makes the best kind of anti-hero.
Laird Cregar and Marc Laurence are also colourful as the two villains. There is a definite Sydney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre vibe between the two of them that works really well, but instead of being just knock-offs, they each have their own unique traits. Cregar is a decadent sleazeball, both effete and a womaniser, who is afraid of blood but perversely intrigued in the details of Raven’s killings. While not likeable, Cregar’s cowardly, flamboyant performance makes it difficult to hate him too much. Meanwhile Lawrence is great as his refreshingly competent and playful henchman, who knows where all the bodies are buried. I would happily watch a whole film just about these two; they are macabre and a ridiculous amount of fun to watch.
Veronica Lake‘s performance is a little wooden, but her chemistry with Ladd is obvious from the word go, and they spark off each other really well. Her look is so iconic, and is really well served here by the beautiful cinematography, where she looks stunning. Less impressive are her musical numbers. There have been so many of these in noir, from Rita Hayworth in Gilda to Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, that it’s almost a staple of the genre. Lake’s singing is ok, and her magic tricks are a neat gimmick, but the songs themselves are uninspired and bring the film to a grinding halt.
Director Frank Tuttle transposes Graham Greene‘s British gangster novel to wartime San Francisco, which works well for the most part. The plot isn’t dramatically changed, but it’s given a slightly jingoistic, flag waving feel at times that is at odds with the fatalistic tone of the rest of the film.
This is only a minor quibble though, and it hardly matters when the momentum builds so wonderfully towards the end. The final showdown is one of the most action packed in all of noir, and to his credit, Ladd literally throws himself into the action, contrasting dramatically with his unflappable demeanour earlier in the film, where the slightest move feels calculated. By the end he is desperately sprinting up quarries, leaping down stairs and hurling himself at the baddies. It’s a physical, energetic performance and a deliberate change that ups the stakes really well.
This Gun For Hire might not be the best of the films starring Ladd and Lake (My vote would go to The Blue Dahlia) but Ladd was never cooler than he is here. It’s a slick noir-thriller, with a showstopping finale and excellent performances all-round.
While the picture is nice and crisp for the most part, (having been restored from a 4k scan of the original film) there are a few instances of muffled and crackly audio that is pretty disappointing. The special features are also a little limited, with a commentary from Adrian Martin, audio versions of the story featuring Ladd, a trailer and film stills.