Monday, July 1, 2013
"THIS GUN FOR HIRE" (1942) Review
"THIS GUN FOR HIRE" (1942) Review
In response to the success of Warner Brother's 1941 movie, "THE MALTESE FALCON", Paramount Pictures followed up with its own film noir flick with its adaptation of Graham Greene's 1936 novel, "A Gun for Sale". This film not only made Alan Ladd a star, despite receiving fourth billing; it also marked the first of his four movies with co-star Veronica Lake.
Set during the early months of America's participation in World War II, the movie opened with a hitman named Raven killing a chemist and blackmailer in San Francisco. Raven's employer, a nightclub owner named Willard Gates, also serves as a middle-man for the employer of the murdered chemist. After Raven hands over a stolen chemical formula to Gates, the latter pays him with marked bills and reports them to the Los Angeles Police as stolen cash from his company, Nitro Chemical. Raven learns of the set up and seeks revenge against both Gates and the latter's employer, Alvin Brewster. Meanwhile, LAPD Detective Michael Crane is in San Francisco, visiting his girlfriend and nightclub entertainer Ellen Graham, when he is assigned to the case. Unfortunately, Raven manages to escape from San Francisco aboard a passenger train bound for Los Angeles. One of his fellow passengers is Ellen, who has maneuvered herself to be hired by Gates to entertain in his Hollywood nightclub. Unbeknownst to everyone other than Ellen, Gates and Brewster are under suspicion as traitors selling secrets to the enemy. After the train arrives in Los Angeles, Raven becomes aware of the police and uses Ellen as a hostage to elude from them.
In a nutshell, "THIS GUN FOR HIRE" is a pretty damn good crime drama that seemed to defy the usual formula of film noir. To be honest, it seemed more like a combination of a crime drama, psychological thriller and a espionage tale. Although Alan Ladd was billed fourth in the movie, his character, the psychologically unstable Raven, pretty much dominated the story. Because of this, I found myself wondering why Paramount Studios even bothered to give him fourth billing. Veronica Lake, who had already become a star within a year or two, received top billing. The story allowed her to pair off with both the movie's leading man Robert Preston and Ladd. She had a nice screen chemistry with Preston, who portrayed her fiancé. But with Ladd, she really sizzled. Come to think of it, Preston had a better screen chemistry with Ladd, six years later in the 1948 Western called "WHISPERING SMITH" than he did with Lake.
I have never read Graham Greene's 1936. One blogger once compared it unfavorably to the 1942 film adaptation. Others have claimed that it is a pretty good novel, if not one of Greene's best. However, I can say that the screenplay written by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett for the 1942 film is well written. The movie featured a strong narrative filled filled with exciting action, well crafted characterizations and a great deal of tension. A few of my favorite scenes featured some good action, including Raven's escape from the police at the Union Station railyard, his rescue of Ellen from Gates' Hollywood mansion and the finale set inside the Nitro Chemical building. I was very impressed by director Frank Tuttle's handling of Raven's escape from the San Francisco boarding house, following his murder of the blackmailing chemist. Although I would not consider it an action scene, it was filled with some pretty damn good tension. And one of the movie's best scenes featured Raven's conversation with Ellen about his brutal childhood at the hands of an abusive aunt. This scene elevated Raven from a cold-blood thug to a damaged man who seemed to long for some kind of friendship or warmth from another human being.
I just realized that most of my favorite scenes in "THIS GUN FOR HIRE" featured Alan Ladd as Raven. No wonder this movie made him a star. He was the best thing about this film. And I defy any actor to steal a film away from the likes of Robert Preston, Veronica Lake, Marc Lawrence and especially Laird Cregar. But I thought he did. I have always believed that Ladd was underrated as a screen actor. The role of Raven, along with a few others, have convinced me that he was a much better actor than most people realize - even to this day. But "THIS GUN FOR HIRE" also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast. Veronica Lake gave a charming performance as Ellen Graham, the magician/entertainer who becomes a temporary spy for the U.S. Although her character is held hostage either by Raven or Gates, I like the fact that her Ellen is an emotionally tough character who manages to hold her own in the company of killers.
Robert Preston found himself stuck with a rather dull character in the form of LAPD Detective Mike Crane. Paramount and Tuttle were damn lucky to get Preston for this role. Because thanks to him, he injected a good deal of energy into the character, allowing the latter to be a lot more bearable and sympathetic than it would have been in the hands of a lesser actor. Marc Lawrence gave a memorably funny performance as Gates' chauffeur/henchman Tommy. Yes, Lawrence was funny. He was also a bit scary. And the actor did a first-rate job in balancing the two aspects of the character. Tully Marshall had another year to live and three more films to make when he portrayed the poisonous owner of Nitro Chemical - Alvin Brewster. I thought he did a pretty good job in portraying capitalism at its most corrupt. But there were moments in that final scene between Brewster and Raven that his performance seemed a bit hammy. It is a damn pity that Laird Cregar only had another two-and-a-half years left to live when he portrayed the anxiety-ridden Willard Gates. Cregar probably gave my second favorite performance in the entire movie. Cregar's Gates turned out to be one of the most unusual villains I have ever seen in a Hollywood movie - smooth-tongued and intelligent, yet at the same time, extremely nervous and a bit cowardly. Watching Cregar twitch his way across the screen, I found it amazing that his character proved capable of making ruthless decision.
Was there anything about "THIS GUN FOR HIRE" that I found unappealing? Other than Tully Marshall's occasional forays into hammy acting, I found the earlier rail yard sequence that featured Ellen and Raven's evasion from the police a bit too long for my tastes. Aside from Raven's childhood recollections, this scene nearly put me to sleep. Was there anything else? Hmmm . . . I found the idea of Ellen being recruited by a U.S. senator to expose Gates and Brewster a little hard to accept. Nor did I understand why Mike Crane took on the job of finding Raven, while he was still on vacation in San Francisco. This would have been easier to accept if he had been an F.B.I. agent.
However, "THIS GUN FOR HIRE" still proved to be an excellent crime drama filled with good action, drama and storytelling. It also proved to be an first-rate stepping stone for Alan Ladd's career. And the movie also featured excellent performances from the likes of Veronica Lake, Robert Preston and especially Laird Cregar. Is it a film noir? I cannot honestly say. Then again, I never believe there was a definition of film noir, despite what many film critics might say.