"This Gun for Hire," (1942) is an 80 minute, black and white, early proto-film noir based on a crime drama/thriller by much honored twentieth century English author/screen writer Graham Greene (The Third Man,The End Of The Affair). It is billed as Alan Ladd’s first film, so it must be his first co-starrer with Veronica Lake. Robert Preston and Laird Cregar round out the cast. As written for the screen by Albert Maltz, and directed by Frank Tuttle, it tells the story of hired killer Philip Raven, who shoots a blackmailer and his beautiful female companion dead, but is paid off in marked bills by his treasonous employer who is working with foreign spies. Greene set this early-career mystery/ thriller in his native United Kingdom, in the years before World War II; but this is a Hollywood production, of course. So it has been moved to California, which, film noir experts insist, is the only setting in which current-day full-color film noir can succeed. (Said film noir experts also insist that, while this film foreshadows film noir, in its use of black and white deep focus, industrial backgrounds, and shadows, it is not actually a film noir: don’t ask me why not, as I can’t quite follow their reasoning.) At any rate, screenwriter Maltz, who was later to be blacklisted for his Communist affiliations, and, I imagine, with good reason, has moved it to the actual war years, and given it an odd kind of pinko/patriotic bath. Alan Ladd (SHANE) plays Raven. In Greene’s book, Raven’s face bears a badly-sewn harelip that I imagine was meant to serve as a sign of Cain. Hollywood – and Ladd too, I’m sure—would have none of that; so Raven is handsome here. Lake (SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS)plays Ellen Graham, pretty entertainer – she’s given a couple of silly songs to lip synch to Martha Mears’ vocals, lyrics by Frank Loesser – no less— that stop the movie cold. Did all female stars have to be nightclub singers and given songs at the time? At any rate, Graham has been recruited by a senator to probe the suspected illegal activities of Raven’s employer. Graham and Raven meet on the train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and after early suspicion, discover they have a mutual enemy in Willard Gates, the part played by Laird Cregar(HANGOVER SQUARE). Yvonne De Carlo and Virginia Farmer show up in uncredited parts. Robert Preston (THE MUSIC MAN), surely the wrong man for the job no matter how you look at it, plays Detective Michael Crane, Graham’s boyfriend, and the cop who’s after Raven. Complications, you may be sure, ensue, though they’re sure not the complications Greene had in mind. Graham Greene (1904-1991) was one of the most illustrious British writers of the 20th century. He enjoyed a very long life, most of the century, and a very long, prolific writing career. I’ve read somewhere that 56% of Greene's works were made into notable films, many of them more than once. The writer was also one of the better-known Catholic converts of his time; many of his thrillers, as this one, deal with Catholic themes of guilt and redemption. He created vivid characters with internal lives on the most fraught of the world’s stages; his characters faced struggles and doubt. Sometimes his characters despaired, or suffered world-weary cynicism - they were always self- aware. But Greene always created a tight thriller, in a lean, realistic style that boasted almost cinematic visuals. This film’s cast might be considered a dream one for a film noir, or whatever, and can, of course, never be duplicated, so I doubt a remake of this is in the cards. But whatever..
"This Gun for Hire"