Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire is mostly known for a star-making turn by Alan Ladd, who plays a hitman named Philp Raven and who is cold as ice – except when it comes to kitties. The 1942 film noir is based on Graham Greene’s novel A Gun for Sale and features a screenplay by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett.
There is a lot to like about this picture, from its simmering mood to John Seitz’ bleak cinematography. The movie, which was remade by James Cagney in 1957 as Short Cut to Hell, is a succinct gut-punch with a predominant tone of austerity.
The plot opens as Ladd’s hitman is tasked to kill a chemist (Frank Ferguson). He snags a stolen chemical formula in the process and returns to his boss Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), who double-crosses him. Raven discovers the setup and vows revenge against the rotund, peppermint-chomping Gates.
Meanwhile, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) is working as a singing magician and gets hired by Gates. She is informed by a senator (Roger Imhof) of suspicions involving the mint lover and treason. Graham’s boyfriend Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is a cop, by the way, and he’s put on the Gates’ trail. What could go wrong?
This Gun for Hire begins by establishing just the kind of man Philip Raven is. He’s petting a cat when Annie (Pamela Blake) comes in to clean his boarding house room. She shoos the kitty away and Raven rips her dress and slaps her in a fit of frosty rage that plants him as a haunting sociopathic nightmare.
As the film progresses, the audience learns more about Raven. He meets Ellen on a train by chance, thereby setting the wheels of fate in motion. He tries to pinch five dollars and she busts him, tells him that he could just return the money and she’d let it go. For some reason, he does and his wounded pride offers something by way of explanation.
There are, then, some vulnerabilities to be found in the armour of Philip Raven and Ladd does a terrific job drawing them to the fore. He flashes the odd smile and sometimes seems to flicker across his face, something that reminds him that he’s supposed to be tough and he’s not supposed to let the world get to him.
Men likes Gates have counted on men like Raven to do the vile heavy lifting and that forms the general thrust of This Gun for Hire. Ladd’s character is effectively a useful tool for the violence-hating Gates. He wants to reap the benefits of Raven’s bloody hands, but he doesn’t want to pull the trigger or have any part in the fisticuffs.
Ellen enters as a sort of redemptive figure and she’s sharp as a tack. She’s not confined to a damsel-in-distress act and she uses her pluck and sense to navigate the waters with Raven. She talks some sense into him, in a way, and cleverly leaves a trail for the cops to find out where she’s being led.
There is some light material about doing the right thing for one’s country, but Raven doesn’t give much weight to it and proves himself a cold-hearted killer to the very end. Almost. This Gun for Hire is not quite a redemption story, but, like all fine films noir, it is a tale that understands how there really is a crack in everything. And that, as they say, is how the light gets in.