Why don’t you go to the police?
I’m my own police.
Raven (Alan Ladd is a professional hit man. For the right price he will kill anyone or anything. At the start of the film he casually murders a man and woman who seem to be involved in some kind of blackmail plot. When his employer Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) pays him off in marked bills and sets him up to be arrested by the police, Raven decides enough is enough and decides to get his revenge.
At the same time LAPD detective lieutenant Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is in San Francisco to visit his girlfriend, nightclub singer and stage magician, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake). He is assigned to arrest Raven, but the wily assassin eludes him and coincidentally ends up sitting next to Ellen on the train to LA. Ellen has been hired by Gates to sing in his LA nightclub and several parties including the US government, Raven and the police are all interested in using this connection.
This sets up a deadly cat and mouse game between the various powers. Ellen and Raven are forced to work together to bring down their mutual enemy, despite an intense mistrust between them.
This Gun For Hire was the first time the Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake combination hit the screen and the chemistry between the two was a huge hit with the public. Really, this film launched both of them as major stars and set up several more collaborations with the two of them including The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia.
Lake is charming as a surprisingly capable Ellen, who gets herself out of several bad situations using her wits and sleight of hand abilities.
Ladd’s Raven, snears, snarls and glares his way through the picture. Perfectly happy to menace anybody who gets in his way. The only things he seems to have any affection for are the stray cats he feeds.
The icy chemistry between Ladd and Lake is something to see and quite unique to that screen duo.
While Robert Preston is officially the lead in the film, he even gets top billing next to Lake. The Ladd and Lake combo make him seem almost non-existent. That doesn’t happen often to an actor of Preston’s caliber. His character, LAPD Detective Michael Crane, is completely overshadowed by Ladd’s dark and threatening Raven character.
Also notable is actor Laird Cregar who plays the villainous Willard Gates (ironic name). Big both in physique and talent, Cregar had a short but eventful career in Hollywood before being felled by a heart attack in 1944, at the young age of 30. Often compared to fellow suave, big man, Sydney Greenstreet, the 6′ 3″ 300 lb Cregar made a career playing heavies, suave villains and supporting characters. Unfortunately, passing away before we could see the full range of his talent.
The film is beautifully lit and shows the classic light and shadow of a true film noir. The storyline, with foreign intrigue, spying and political games, is a little atypical for the genre. But Ladd’s Raven is a classic noir anti-hero, a dangerous, even “bad” person who ends up on the side of angels much to his own surprise.
My primary issue with the film is that the antagonist’s (Nitro Chemical Corporation and its executives) motivation simply doesn’t hold water in my opinion. The original story was set in England and had the villains as Nazi sympathizers, not unheard of in England (or the US) at the time and Nazi Germany definitely had the intelligence network and funding to believably support a 5th column in England.
When the story was adapted to the US screen, the villain’s Axis connections were changed to Japanese. Even at the time, just after Pearl harbor, the idea of a powerful corporation allying itself with the Japanese would have been laughable at best.
Japan’s economy was a fraction the size of the US or even Germany’s and their political apparatus had little tolerance for foreigners and negligible spy networks and little to no support being quite literally the most hated people in the US at the time, just after Pearl Harbor. A clandestine alliance with Japan would simply not make sense to a major corporation for economic reasons and would offer little political benefit to them with a ton of risks.
The only way I could see this even working would be a case similar to Sydney Greenstreet’s character Dr. Lorenz in Across The Pacific, where the character had actually lived in Japan and adapted the culture as his own. The film really doesn’t give a reason for this treason and it is a very large hole in the plot.
Even with this flaw, the film is entertaining, with some great performances and beautiful black and white cinematography. The film is at its best when it drops the foreign intrigues and focuses on Raven and Ellen attempting to take down the corporation and its corrupt leadership.
Verdict 3.5 Gavels out of 5 Despite flaws in the character motivation and some muddled story line, This Gun For Hire is a classic in the film noir style. Great performances by Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar, along with beautiful cinematography, make the film worth a view for any fan of classic black and white cinema.