Not at all the film noir that indiscriminate marketers suggest, but rather an interesting hybrid between ham-fisted celluloid Vaudeville, atmospheric crime thriller à la Fritz Lang, and gothic horror movie themes. Perhaps proto noir in its best sequences. And interesting today, at least in part, because of that cross-genre mix.
Based on Graham Greene’s 1936 novel, A Gun for Sale, the script was Americanized and belatedly injected with a Nipponophobic slant. Production began in October 1941 and finished on 16 December, nine days after the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack. There was quite likely a rapid re-write and re-shooting schedule ahead of the New York premiere in May 1942.
Hit man Philip Raven (Ladd) is hired by Nitro Chemicals magnate Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall), through an intermediary, Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), to kill a blackmailer who has stolen a secret chemical formula for poison gas Nitro intends to sell to the Japanese.
Raven fulfils his contract, but is double-crossed by Gates, who pays him with marked bills and notifies the police of their ‘theft’ from Nitro Chemicals. Raven seeks revenge, becoming entangled with singer and secret government agent Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), whose fiancée is also the investigating police detective, Michael Crane (Robert Preston).
Graham Greene’s original story was set in Europe, featuring a hare-lipped assassin hired by a wealthy steel magnate to kill the socialist Czech minister for war. Screenwriters Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood Ten) and William Riley ‘RW’ Burnett (author of Little Caesar) changed the assassin’s disfigurement to a badly broken wrist, leaving us with a coldly handsome killer in Alan Ladd, turning his first major screen rôle into a career turning point after years of landing only bit parts.
Ladd’s performance, under the guiding hand of veteran director Frank Tuttle, and with the vision of multi-talented cinematographer John Francis Seitz, lends a surprisingly timeless air to this story of murder, double-cross, and industrial espionage.
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 (1967), and Michael Winner’s Scorpio (1973), in both of which Delon played coldly calculating assassins, perhaps drawing on Ladd’s earlier performance. Both Raven and Jean Laurier—Alain Delon in Scorpio—are fond of cats.
Ladd was able to pioneer a new kind of persona for a killer, departing from the James Cagney/Edward G Robinson pattern to reach for an understated, brooding style that included elements of cynicism, sentimentality, and psychosis.
Raven is shown not killing a little girl in leg braces who might have identified him for the murder of the blackmailer, and was undone, in part, by buying a new dress for the cleaner in his rooming house, whose dress he tore when she was cruel to a kitten he had adopted. The lesson to Raven seems to be that kindness earns him only trouble.
Still, showing a killer with a human streak in a 1942 thriller was daring and unconventional. Awkwardly glued to that human dimension was his final patriotic act in extracting confessions of treason from the real villains of the piece.
Extending this unconventional portrait of a killer, the script attempted to offer an insight into Raven’s psychology: crouching in a railway carriage, under siege by police, Raven confesses to Graham that he was brutally beaten as a child by an unforgiving aunt, who becomes his first victim after breaking his wrist with a red-hot flat iron. All credit to Ladd’s performance here, with the pleading, child-like manner in which he seems to beg for understanding. He tells his captive that he’s heard of a new science—the unnamed discipline of psychoanalysis—that might ‘cure’ him. But we, as audience, know it’s already too late for him, and we know that he knows it too.
Carl Jung was still alive and Sigmund Freud had been dead only three years in 1942.
Was there a rebuke here, too, for the coldly puritanical approach to rearing children, particularly orphans, in depression-era America, anticipating by decades a public awareness of the consequences of such mistreatment?
Billed third in the credits, below Veronica Lake and Robert Preston, Ladd clearly steals the show, followed by the impressive, deliciously camp performance from Cregar as the effete, duplicitous, cowardly Gates, who relies on his chauffeur, Tommy (Marc Lawrence), to do his dirty work.
Still better than Lake or Preston was Tully Marshall as the withered and wheelchair-bound, but tyrannical and authentically menacing Nitro Chemical boss Alvin Brewster. The character might well have worked as a visual metaphor for the then ageing, obscenely wealthy, corrupt, robber-baron capitalists of America’s not so distant past.
Veronica Lake was wasted in this film, with a ridiculously scripted part, appalling musical numbers, and bad lines delivered as if transposed from some other story. I can’t think of a more preposterous song, and performance, than ‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t’ with which Tuttle, an experienced musical director, introduces Lake.
The unquestionably sensuous Lake was never much of an actor, but even so, she just didn’t fire in this film. That said, audience reaction, or studio response, to the Lake-Ladd combination had them appear together again three more times—The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Saigon (1948).
Lake was tiny at 151cms, and considered suitable to make Ladd, at 165cms, appear tall. Ladd didn’t like Lake on a personal level, and I think you can spot some of that animus in the film.
No matter how indifferent Lake’s performance appears, Robert Preston was worse. He gallops into his part with all the subtlety and sympathy of a small-town stage extra, all booming voice and overdone gestures, ruining every scene he intrudes on.
The film’s failings aside, Tuttle and Seitz pulled off impressive mises en scène that included an opening so clean it could have been shot 15 years later. Their sequences featuring the Nitro Chemicals set, and those with industrial backgrounds, offered an impressive derivative of German Expressionism. The pure gothic of the Gates mansion scenes rivals the best in horror films of the era.
The Gates mansion sequences featuring Lake channel the lurid pulp fiction cover paintings that formed part of the unique design themes of the era, including especially the piquant bondage scene with a tied-up Graham at the mercy of Gates and his henchman, Tommy, dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform that would today be regarded as pure retro-fetish. Raven’s stalking about the house exemplifies the style and atmosphere of a 1940s pulp horror thriller, all fedora, trench coat and gun, casting deep, menacing shadows wherever he goes.
Seitz’s observations are meticulous. Each are minor pieces of art in themselves, influencing many later films, from films noir 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, accentuating the increasing desperation and rising anxiety of Raven’s psychosis.
The Vaudeville scenes notwithstanding, Tuttle and Seitz delivered footage that rivalled the best chiaroscuro atmosphere of the coming decade.
No matter how much the film is spoiled by Lake’s poorly scripted part, and Preston’s cabotinage, it is well worth the effort to see, for Ladd’s performance, and to observe the emerging forms and conventions of what would soon become film noir.
Paramount Pictures, 81 minutes, black and white.
Directed by Frank Tuttle. Produced by Richard Blumenthal. Written by Albert Maltz and WR Burnett, based on the novel A Gun for Sale 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.