Saturday, June 28, 2014

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Director: Frank Tuttle                                     Writers: Albert Maltz & W.R. Burnett
Film Score: David Buttolph                             Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar and Robert Preston

One only has to look at the statuesque Joel McCrea next to Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels to realize how much better she was teamed with Alan Ladd. At only five feet six, Ladd was much more proportionally appropriate for the four eleven Lake. This Gun for Hire was the first of the three onscreen pairings for the couple, and though Ladd had played dozens of bit parts and un-credited roles going back a decade earlier this was his first starring role. The scenes with Ladd and Lake are great, but the film as a whole is somewhat lackluster, which is the case with all of the duo’s films. The story originated with the novel by Graham Greene and was set in Great Britain. The screenplay was adapted by Albert Maltz, who was nominated for two Academy Awards, and the great crime novelist W.R. Burnett who was also nominated for an Oscar. David Buttholph provides a serviceable film score and the great John Seitz is behind the camera.

The film opens with Alan Ladd waking up to his alarm clock in the afternoon, and establishes his character immediately. He has to make a delivery, with a gun. The cleaning lady who tries to shoo his cat away gets her dress torn and a few choice words thrown at her before he chases her out. The man he’s working for is being blackmailed and as soon as he has the letters he kills both the blackmailer and his girlfriend. And he almost shoots the crippled little girl on the stairs, but decides not to at the last minute. When he meets with Liard Cregar at a café the audience learns that Cregar is just the middle man, but he’s recognized by a customer and gives Ladd at least some clue to his identity. Cregar then pays Ladd off in marked bills and goes directly to the police to implicate him in a staged holdup with the hopes that the police will kill him an all the lose ends will be tied up. Meanwhile, Cregar is auditioning talent for his nightclub and sees Veronica Lake perform a singing magic act and hires her on the spot. But she is just a plant, it turns out, for senator Roger Imhof who’s trying to make a case against Cregar for spying.

To link everything together further, Lake is dating Los Angeles police detective Robert Preston. He’s up in San Francisco to investigate the hold up and when Ladd spends some of his money to buy the cleaning lady a new dress he narrowly escapes. So Ladd goes after Cregar and both he and Cregar and Lake wind up taking the same train to Los Angeles where the big finish happens. Ladd’s character is a fascinating one. On the one hand he is a completely amoral killer who has absolutely no remorse for what he’s done. But along the way he is faced with certain choices where he expresses a morality that is certainly not imposed from without. He doesn’t kill the little girl, and he has some sort of inner need to protect Lake. And while he has no compunction about killing a police officer so he can get away, he’s deeply troubled by accidentally killing a cat. Lake’s character is equally mysterious. She has to lie to Preston about the work she’s doing for Imhof, and while she clearly cares for Ladd, she leads the police right to him.

Laird Cregar brief but memorable career in Hollywood appearing in over a dozen films in five years, dying unexpectedly at the age of 31 from complications due to the extreme weight loss he undertook for Hangover Square. Veronica Lake would do some good work during the war years, but after a dismal performance in The Hour Before the Dawn her career never recovered. Ladd, on the other hand, would go on to have some of his finest performances after the war, most memorably in Shane. But a similar downturn in his career let do his early death at age fifty. Robert Preston, of course, would go on to everlasting fame as The Music Man and had a lengthy career in Hollywood. The only other actors of note are Tully Marshall who plays Cregar’s boss, confined to a wheelchair but no less powerful for it, and movie mobster Marc Lawrence as Cregar’s henchman. This Gun for Hire is extremely enjoyable for the performances of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, but as a film noir it suffers in comparison to other crime dramas of the period.

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