|Alan Ladd in his star-making role.|
Alan Ladd became a star as anti-hero Raven, a contract killer who is double-crossed by his client. The film's opening scene tells us all we need to know about the quiet Raven. He takes in a stray kitten and feeds it milk. But when the cleaning lady (dressed like a showgirl) shoos away the cat, Raven grabs her, rips her dress, and slaps her backhanded across the face. Here is a man that is ruthless, but with a morsel of humanity buried deep inside. (Later, Raven tries to rationalize his affection for cats by claiming that they bring luck.)
|Raven kills the innocent girlfriend.|
The plot hinges on a chance encounter when Raven and nightclub entertainer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) wind up sitting together on a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Raven is going to L.A. to find Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), an obvious middleman who hired Raven and then tipped off the police by paying the killer with stolen money. Raven's objective is to find out who Gates works for and then kill Gates and his employer.
Unknown to Raven, Ellen is also traveling to meet Gates, who owns The Neptune Club. A U.S. senator has informed Ellen that Gates is working for a powerful man who is selling a secret formula to the enemy. Ellen's mission is to find out the identity of Gates' employer.
|Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.|
Ellen is touched by the fact this hardened killer is willing to confide his darkest secret to her. She is also attracted to his decisiveness and moxie when he rescues her from Gates' henchman. In many films, this relationship would have involved into an unlikely romance. But in This Gun for Hire, Ellen kisses Raven on the cheek and that's it. There are no looks of missed opportunities. Raven is simply not a man that falls in love easily (if at all). And Ellen truly loves her police detective boyfriend (Robert Preston).
|Laird Cregar as Gates,|
Director Frank Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz team up on a number of exciting visuals. The chase through the train yard and the drainage pipes may be the film's highlight, but there are clever bits throughout. My favorite may be a scene where the hotel maid goes to use a pay phone in a police-filled lobby, unaware that Raven is hiding there. He presses his gun against her side as she pretends to talk on the phone. Her phone dialogue consists of answers to his questions. It's a brilliant merger of smart dialogue and murky lighting.
|Veronica Lake as Ellen.|
This Gun for Hire was loosely based on Graham Greene's 1936 novel This Gun for Sale. James Cagney directed a remake in 1957 called Short Cut to Hell, which starred Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson. It was Cagney's only stint in the director's chair.