This Gun for Hire, released in 1942, is not a typical example of film noir. For instance, it has two musical numbers. The script is weak, with some corny dialogue and a plot that relies on two incredible coincidences. But the film, directed by Frank Tuttle, remains notable for the indelible performance by Alan Ladd, then an unknown, as the cold-blooded killer who discovers the good inside himself.
Ladd, who was fourth billed, is really the star of the show. He plays Raven, who, at the start of the film, guns down a scientist who was blackmailing someone. The scientist was supposed to be alone, but his secretary was at the apartment, so Raven shoots her, too. Notably, though, he does not hurt a young crippled girl, even though she sees his face. Raven also has a soft spot for pussycats, and slaps around the hotel maid who chases a stray away. Later, he will expound on the reason he likes them–they don’t answer to anyone, and go their own way.
Raven then meets with his client, the fussy and fat Laird Cregar. Cregar is an executive with a chemical company who is selling secrets to the Japanese. He sets up Raven by giving him marked money from a phony robbery. Raven is pursued by the police, and vows revenge on Cregar and his boss, who is the John D. Rockefeller-like owner of the company, played by Tully Marshall.
Meanwhile, a singing magician, Veronica Lake, gets a job with Cregar, who moonlights as a nightclub owner. She is approached by a senator, who wants her to go undercover and gather information on Cregar. Why a complete amateur is chosen for such a dangerous job is unclear. Also, Lake’s boyfriend is police detective Robert Preston, who just happens to be investigating the robbery.
If that weren’t enough of a coincidence, Ladd and Lake end up sitting next to each other on the train from San Francisco to L.A. Cregar spots them, and thinks they’re in cahoots.
The plot may be creaky, but there’s nothing routine about Ladd’s performance. He would seem to be heartless, except for cats and small children, but a scene in which he is holding Lake hostage in abandoned building on a railroad lot kind of sums up the era’s attitudes about criminals–they are the results of their upbringing. Raven was beaten consistently throughout his life by a mean aunt (his father was hanged, he says), and when she hit him in the arm with a red-hot flatiron, he stabbed her in the throat, beginning his odyssey through juvenile homes, where he was beaten even more.
The relationship between Ladd and Lake, though a little unbelievable (it’s hard to see why she trusts him) is nonetheless effective, and the end of the film, when he has a chance to shoot Preston but doesn’t, knowing he’s Lake’s boyfriend, works well. The film was based on a novel by Graham Greene, which I haven’t read, but I have no doubt the script is far more toothless than the novel. Still, because of Ladd’s performance, it’s well worth seeing.