Alan Ladd becomes a star. After 40 bit parts, he earned it.
Apr 21, 2011
This Gun for Hire is a straight-forward, linear, quick-moving story based on a much more interesting book. It's a dark, entertaining movie, and probably close to required viewing if you enjoy noir and/or Forties films.
Raven (Alan Ladd) is a hired killer, evidently without remorse or nerves, who is paid to knock off a blackmailer. The blackmailer was trying to take to the cleaners a corrupt industrialist who was coincidentally helping the enemy. (This is during WWII.) However, Raven is paid in counterfeit bills on the assumption the police will catch him when he spends the money. He discovers the plot and decides to take out the man who hired him and the industrialist who was behind it all. Along the way he meets Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) and takes her hostage. Guess who survives.
The movie bills Lake and Robert Preston above the title, Laird Cregar just below the title, and Alan Ladd last in large type as "Introducing Alan Ladd." Some introduction; according to IMDb, Ladd had already appeared in more than 40 films in unbilled and minor parts.
This was Ladd's breakthrough movie and he's very good in it. I don't think he was much of an actor, but he had a lot of star presence, especially in the movies he made in the Forties. There was always something passive but potentially dangerous about him. His looks could have kept him in the pretty boy category, but for whatever reason didn't. His voice helped a lot.
Veronica Lake, for me, is something of an acquired taste, but she and Ladd made an effective pairing that was repeated several times. Laird Cregar played the heavy, and he was an interesting actor. Big and fleshy, he was something of a Raymond Burr type but more versatile. Robert Preston is seldom mentioned in regard to this movie and this must have been irritating. Here's a guy who usually played best friend of the lead, gets a good part as the lead in a solid movie -- and winds up being over-shadowed by Ladd.
The first five minutes or so of the movie are among the most efficient I've come across in establishing a major player's character and complexities. We first see Raven waking up in his rented rooms and checking the clock. Nothing out of the ordinary there. In very short order, however, he's taken a gun out, helped a stray kitten get into his room and given it some food, slapped hard and full in the face a maid who tried to kick out the cat, showed up at the blackmailer's place where he meets the blackmailer (who was supposed to be alone); the blackmailer has his "secretary" with him so he just kills them both; on the way out a little girl on the stairs asks him to get her ball which has rolled away; she sees his face, he obviously thinks about shooting her, too -- but gets the ball for her and leaves. In just a few minutes Raven's cold ruthlessness and his conflicts are established, and so is a sort of sympathy for him. These first few minutes, in my view, are what make the movie work.
Raymond Hope told me once that he knew Raven. He even used him a couple of times. Raymond never spoke about Raven much. When he did it was cautiously. Raymond had been good friends with Max Durant, a top reporter for the Chronicle. Then Durant had an accident. That’s all I know.
Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) in This Gun for Hire:
Let me tell you a story. It’s about a 12-year old killer. If you were 12 years old, would you want as a friend a kid who kills? Me neither. Who am I? You’ve probably seen my byline…Max Durant of the San Francisco Chronicle.
One Friday afternoon after school a bunch of kids were watching Willie Mosch swing a kitten around by its hind legs. The kitten was terrified. Willie was big for his age, a bully. All the other kids were kind of fascinated. Some were egging Willie on. Then Philip Raven, a small, blonde kid the same age as Willie, stepped forward and told Willie to either put the kitten down or take it back home. Willie just stared at Phil. Suddenly he turned around and took his kitten back to his house across the street. Monday at school Willie was complaining that his kitten had run away and if he ever found it he’d swing it around by its neck and not its back legs. I didn’t say anything, but Saturday morning I’d seen Phil carrying that kitten in his arms from house to house until he found a home for it. Somehow late Friday night Phil had entered Willie’s home, taken the cat and never been found out. I kind of admired Phil for that.
Then three weeks later Willie was found dead in the freight yards. The police think he’d tumbled over the viaduct bridge onto the tracks just when a big freight train was passing. Tumbled over? The guardrails were higher than a grown man’s waist. Philip Raven just shrugged when he heard about it. It was only later that I figured out what happen. Phil had spent those three weeks noting the exact timetables for the afternoon freight trains…the exact moment when an hour after school was out, a train passed under the bridge. Then he told Willie he’d take him to where the kitten was…on the other side of the freight yard. On the bridge and with precise timing, Philip pointed to something for Willie to see. Willie leaned over the guardrail and Phil bent down, grasped Willie’s ankles, and over Willie went.
Was Philip Raven a sociopath? He had a tough life. His father left town when Philip was born. His mother was the town punch. She was a good-looking woman, but a slattern and a drunk. They lived in a small house, almost a shack, toward the edge of town. When she was entertaining a boyfriend or just some guy she’d picked up at a bar, Philip had to stay outside. That usually meant all night. He’d take a blanket and sleep on the small porch. I’m sure he could hear them…drinking, laughing, groaning, snoring. She’d beat him whenever she felt like it, which was often. She’d use a belt or a switch or a broom handle. Phil never fought back and he never cried.
Then on his 18th birthday, when he’s legally an adult, his mother was found at the foot of the concrete steps leading to the porch. Her neck was broken. The police said she must have had one too many and tripped. I’m not so sure. The next day Phil left town. I’d heard rumors that if the money was right, Raven would kill. At first I couldn’t believe it. Here’s this blonde, blue-eyed young man, scarcely 5’6”, and he’s a contract murderer? Then I thought of Willie Mosch and Mrs. Raven.
When Phil met Ellen Graham his world turned upside down. For Phil, all women were either sluts or Madonnas. One you’d look at with disgust and the other you’d never touch with lust in your heart. Raven had never made love to a woman in his life. Then he’s thrown together with Ellen. He finds out she’s neither a slut nor a Madonna, just a clever, attractive woman, and even shorter than he is. Ellen stirred something in him that made him think of a kitten that needs to be protected.
They say Raven sacrificed himself to make sure Ellen wouldn’t be hurt. Well, maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to it than that. The cop Ellen was engaged to would never permit anything to leak out that would compromise her. All that the big shots wanted was to make sure the anonymous killer was out of the picture. If Detective Mike Crane said it was over, most people would take him at his word.
So is Philip Raven alive or dead? I’d have to ask around some to be sure. I might just do that. It would make a helluva story.
Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) in This Gun for Hire:
Is that terrible reporter Max Durant trying to dredge everything up again? Can’t he leave us in peace? Does it matter if Philip lived or died that night?
I tried to forget Philip. I married Michael, the detective on the case, six months after the case was closed. Michael was a sweet man and he loved me with all his heart. He was funny and sincere and optimistic. He loved to sing Broadway show tunes in the shower. Did I love him? Love is so hard to be sure of, isn’t it? Three years after we were married he fell from a five-story building chasing a robbery suspect. Michael died instantly. My world fell apart. I began to drink and I started to gamble. I didn’t care.
Then I met Eddie Harwood. I know, Eddie was a gambler, probably a crook. I didn’t love him, but I think he fell in love with me. He began to take care of me. He sobered me up. He wouldn’t let me gamble. He didn’t make any demands on me. One evening he told me all about himself, and then he asked me to marry him. I felt grateful to Eddie…is that love? I said yes to him. I wanted a new life. I took Eddie’s name and began to use my middle name instead of Ellen. I became Joyce Harwood. I was never really happy, but Eddie never became insistent. I appreciated him for that.
Then came that evening when I thought I saw a person I knew and I stopped to offer him a ride. He said he was Johnny Morrison. I said I was Joyce Harwood. We both knew it wasn’t true. Four years had gone by since Philip had sent me out into the night to protect me. By chance, or fate, we had met again.
Philip had escaped and had joined the Navy. He had made a mistaken marriage and the woman had been killed. He was going to find the killer to save himself. I swore to help him. To the world we were Johnny and Joyce. By ourselves, we were Philip and Ellen. I knew what Philip had done before, and I knew he had changed. What was past was gone, but the future was just before us. The real murderer was captured and Eddie died in an accident. Philip and I married and moved to a big house I own here in Santa Barbara. Philip had a war-time friend of his, a big man named Buzz, and we had him move in to the sleeping quarters above the separate garage. Buzz is gentle and nice. I found a job for him at our town's public library, where I sit on the board. He sometimes gets terrible headaches from a war wound.
Philip and I have been content and happy. A friend said once that we look like the little bride and groom atop a wedding cake. We’ve talked about Max Durant. There’s no way of buying off a man like that. If he discovers Philip’s past he might just as well kill us. That’s what Philip said two days ago. Today there was a front-page story in the Santa Barbara News-Press about the famous reporter Max Durant and his accidental death the evening before. He had stumbled down the service stairway at his hotel here and had broken his neck.
Philip will be home soon. He was late coming in last night. I’ve sent the servants away and have fixed him supper myself. We’re going to dine in front of the fire in the den, then sit together on the sofa. Philip will hold me and I'll have Philip’s hand in mine. We'll look at the fire and dream about how lucky we’ve been to have found each other again.