Alan Ladd spent a decade as a bit actor working around Hollywood, appearing briefly in films like Citizen Kane or in supporting parts like in Joan of Paris. In 1942, he finally scored the right role as the hitman Raven in film noir staple This Gun For Hire, which transformed him into the leading man he was for the rest of his career. Yet the film is remarkable not just for his star-making performance, but how it reckons with the morality of its protagonist, a hired killer.
Screenwriters Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett (working from Graham Greene’s novel “A Gun For Sale”) hit us right away with two conflicting actions from Raven: he compassionately feeds a stray cat, then beats a housekeeper in a burst of anger. Next he goes to work, shooting a chemist, and unfortunately, the chemist’s secretary. “They said he’d be alone,” Raven says before shooting the screaming woman—less apology, more explanation. Then, after all that violence, we see him help a disabled little girl retrieve her ball. All of these actions add up to a character that does not fit the simplistic dichotomy of good or bad presented in most Hollywood productions.
When Raven is betrayed by his boss Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), he goes on the run, and meets a nightclub singer named Ellen (Veronica Lake) along the way. Ellen has just agreed to perform in the new nightclub run by Gates, and so Raven follows her from San Francisco down to LA to get his revenge. Even though he’s a killer, we side with Raven because he has been wronged—but Maltz and Burnett continue to present us with conflicting actions to make sure we never feel comfortable condemning or rooting for the assassin.
Ladd is convincing as the stoic, cold-hearted character, but also manages to sell an emotional monologue that comes late in the film. His performance gives Raven, and therefore his own new screen persona, a mystery that makes his sudden stardom understandable. Lake is stuck in a more traditional female part than her first lead in Sullivan’s Travels, but the fact that Ellen and Raven never develop a romance sets her apart from the average girl a hero picks up in a typical thriller. As the completely spineless villain, Cregar is perfectly cast—unlike in Joan of Paris, where he played a more conventional bad guy. The rest of the supporting cast is filled out nicely, with Robert Preston as Ellen’s cop boyfriend on the hunt for Raven, Tully Marshall as an ancient but savage crime boss, and Marc Lawrence as Gates’ bloodthirsty bodyguard.
Paramount knew they had a hit before the film even opened, and quickly reunited Ladd and Lake for a new version of The Glass Key. What they didn’t know was what a classic This Gun For Hire would become, and how the morally complex screenplay, Ladd’s breakout performance, and John F. Seitz’s moody cinematography, would make it one of the pivotal early entries in the film noir canon.
Where to Watch
Buy it on DVD