Despite its literary lineage and stunning debut of actor Alan Ladd, not to mention the darkly atmospheric misè en scenes of Seitz and taut direction of Tuttle, this film appears to have slipped off the horizon as a Hollywood great. As far as I’m concerned it’s a seminal work and classic film noir.
Some liberties were taken with Graham Greene’s original story, but that was to be expected given the peculiar obsession by Americans to appropriate all aspects of life and experience as uniquely American. There was also the unexpected entry of the USA into the second world war at what must have been near the middle of the production; Pearl Harbour was bombed on 7 December 1941, This Gun for Hire was released in May 1942.
Greene’s hideous, hare-lipped assassin hired by a wealthy steel magnate to kill the Czech minister for war becomes a strikingly handsome killer, Alan Ladd as Philip Raven (shades of Edgar Allen Poe?), disfigured only by a badly broken wrist and hired by a chemical tycoon via proxy to assassinate a blackmailing industrial chemist who’s threatening to reveal a secret plot to sell a poison gas formula to the Japanese.
In some senses the background story of a chemicals tycoon’s treason and the unexpected ‘patriotic’ intervention from a criminal may have drawn on and supported a possible real-life softening or suspension of public moral judgement for those American transgressors willing to leave their pasts behind and ship off to fight in Europe or the Pacific. That wasn’t quite the case for Raven, but the sentiment would have helped to make the character more sympathetic than could otherwise have been expected.
The script and Alan Ladd’s performance lend a surprisingly timeless air to this story of murder, double-cross and industrial intrigue. In fact, watching the opening sequences I was struck by how much Ladd reminded me of a young Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, and Michael Winner’s Scorpio, in both of which Delon played coldly calculating assassins, perhaps drawing on Ladd’s earlier performances.
Ladd was able to pioneer a fresh, unaffected, understated, brooding style that could be seen as a trailblazer for the strong, silent types that were to follow. Yet Ladd also carried off the vulnerability, paranoia and psychological torment that turned Raven into a killer in the first place, bringing into sharp relief a strong pessimism about the world that might have been serendipitous zeitgeist.
Although billed third in the promotional credits below Veronica Lake and Robert Preston, Ladd clearly steals the show, followed by the impressive high camp performance by Cregar as the effete, duplicitous, cowardly Gates who relies on his chauffeur Tommy to do his dirty work for him. There is an equally impressive support performance by Tully Marshall as the withered and wheelchair-bound but nevertheless tyrannical and authentically menacing Nitro Chemical boss Alvin Brewster, who is, perhaps, a visual metaphor for the ageing, obscenely wealthy, decadent, corrupt robber-baron capitalists of America’s not so distant past.
Lake appears to have been entirely miscast, or her part was badly scripted. Her musical numbers were plainly ridiculous, as was her performance as the fiancée of police officer Michael Crane (Preston) and the ridiculous sub-plot that saw her become a secret agent for the government. She did alright as a captive first of Gates and then of Raven, but she just didn’t sparkle in this rôle for all her arresting sensuality and talent. Lake was to appear with Ladd three more times, mainly because at a tiny 4’11.5″ she was a suitable height opposite the diminutive 5’5″ Ladd, who, it is said, didn’t much like her on a personal level.
Worse than Lake was Preston, who barreled into his part with all the subtlety and sympathy of a vaudeville extra, all booming voice and overdone gestures. He comes across like a cheap stage hack, and his character like a country bumpkin. Preston ruined the otherwise nuanced atmosphere of the piece every time he walked on set. It might almost be described as a reminder that Hollywood film was not that far away from stage conventions yet, and that Tuttle didn’t get to choose who he had to work with.
Nevertheless, all the sequences featuring Alan Ladd were finely observed, with an eye for portraying not only the hit man’s ruthlessness, introduced in the scenes where Raven methodically prepares for and executes the assassination of the blackmailer and an unintended witness. This hard side was immediately juxtaposed with a scene showing Raven carefully weighing up whether to shoot a small girl in leg braces because she could be a witness to his murders, but deciding instead to hand her back a ball she dropped and asked him to pick up for her, despite the fact that this was bound to offer her a good eyewitness look at him.
Equally impressive were the almost gothic sequences in the Gates house with its oppressive air of heavy oak paneling, and in the Nitro chemical works with its coldly impersonal dark marble floors, columns, and imposingly massive brass doors.
The Gates house sequences are visually strongly reminiscent of the vividly lurid pulp fiction cover paintings that formed part of the unique design themes of the era.. For example, there was the piquant bondage scene with a tied-up Graham being leered at by Gates and his henchman, Tommy, dressed in what came across as a highly fetishistic chauffeur’s uniform. The scene epitomises the deviant, misogynistic sexuality said to be a characteristic of film noir. Raven’s stalking about the house exemplifies the style and atmosphere of a 1940s comic book thriller, all fedora, trench coat and gun, casting deep, menacing shadows wherever he goes.
Seitz’s observations are meticuluous in creating the atmosphere of a slum, the raucous mood of a carnival, the impersonal monotony of a train journey, the desolate loneliness of being alone on the road, the faux opulence of a manor inhabited by a nouveau riche fop, the grimy feel of a deserted gasworks and train yard, and the real but coldly impersonal opulence of an industrial palace inhabited by worker ants and a treasonous tycoon. Each are minor pieces of art in themselves, influencing many later films, from other noir stories to the first James Bond cycle.
The lighting is changeable, moving between mundanely ‘realistic’ monotone and sharply contrasted, atmospheric moodiness with its long, eerie shadows, very much accentuating the increasing desperation and rising anxiety of Raven’s situation. It is every bit the visually ambient complement to the story.
Although it was a foregone conclusion that the assassin could not succeed in his work, I was disappointed that he didn’t somehow slip away, maybe off to war where he could die an ‘honourable’ death for doing what he did best.
In an unusual twist for a film of its time, the script and/or director attempted to offer an insight into the psychopathology of a killer by way of Raven’s confession to Graham, in a cold and coldly impersonal railway carriage while under siege by the police, about being brutally beaten by an unforgiving aunt when he was a child, with the aunt becoming his first victim, and the odium attached to that deed preventing a return to normalcy, thus igniting his homicidal bent and career as a hit man. Raven/Ladd evoked tremendous pathos with his child-like, anguished, screwed up face and the almost pleading suggestion that he’s heard of a new science (psychoanalysis) that might ‘cure’ him. Alas, we, the audience, know it’s already too late for him as he crouches in the abandoned railway carriage, and we know that he knows it too.
Not only does this sequence reference the then relatively new science of psychoanalysis (Carl Jung was still alive and Sigmund Freud had been dead only three years in 1942), it does so credibly, closely mirroring in its details about the reasons for Raven’s sociopathic impulses an analysis of contemporary Sydney criminal Arthur “Neddy” Smith, serving a life sentence for rape, robbery and murder (see codicil below for details).
Raven’s confession not only explains his motivations, but also humanises the character and exposes his vulnerability, and therefore also his ultimate fallibility no matter how coldly calculating he might be.
It may be only my personal reading of the story, but I thought there was a touch of rebuke for a coldly puritanical approach to rearing children, particularly orphans, that is implied as part of the story’s grounding in depression era America, and which anticipated by decades public awareness of the consequences of such mistreatment.
Regardless of this personal interpretation, what the scene did was illustrate in a most unusually cerebral manner that bad guys aren’t born that way — they become what they are because of what happened to them, possibly because the world can be a harsh, uncaring place. In a sense the film presented the logical conclusions that could be formed about existentialist cynicism directed at human proclivities, and without that cynicism there could be no noir stories.
No matter how much the film is spoiled by Lake and Preston, it is well worth the effort to see at least a couple of times, if only to observe the emerging forms and conventions of American film noir. I’m personally much taken by the opening sequences establishing Raven’s bona fides as a killer, which might have been filmed 30 or even 60 years later without appearing significantly out of place.
Footnote: Presented by clinical psychologist Dr Leah Giarratano in the documentary ‘Beyond the Darklands’, aired on Australia’s Channel 7 on 17 August 2009.
1942, 80 minutes, Universal, black and white.
Directed by Frank Tuttle. Produced by Richard Blumenthal. Written by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett based on the novel “A Gun for Hire” by Graham Greene. Cinematography (Director of Photography) by John F Seitz. Music by David Buttolph, (songs by Frank Loesser and Jacques Press).
With Veronica Lake as Ellen Graham, Robert Preston as Detective Michael Crane, Laird Cregar as Willard Gates, Alan Ladd as Philip Raven, Tully Marshall as Alvin Brewster, Marc Lawrence as Tommy.