Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Noir-a-Thon Double Feature Part 1: This Gun For Hire (1942)

After last weeks washout with The Glass Key we move on to another great adaptation of the eras crime literature, this time English master of literature Graham Greene sees his 1936 novel A Gun For Sale adapted for an American audience as the 1941 film This Gun For Hire. Don't forget you can find all the Noir-a-Thon entries in our vault.

Director: Frank Tuttle
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar, Robert Preston
Year: 1942
Country of origin: USA
Language: English

Synopsis: Hitman, The Raven (Alan Ladd) is hired to kill a blackmailer and then set up to take the fall. Pursued by the police he sets out to escape capture and get even with the pair of bad guys who intended for him to get busted. Along the way he encounters a cabaret singer, Ellen (Veronica Lake,) employed as an undercover agent by federal authorities.

What Indie Nights? review

Hi there BBBG faithfuls! It's nice to see you again!
Thanks for sticking with us over the unplanned hiatus of the last week or so, sometimes all one's self-imposed pressures and deadlines can just pile up too high to see over.

We're back in action again this week, looking at This Gun For Hire, another adaptation from a novel of the same period - this time it's Graham Greene. I will now go on record as being a complete Graham Greene fangirl: there's something about the world-weary poignancy of his characters, the sigh-and-get-on-with-itness of their outlook, that really appeals to my narrative sensibilities. I always like to say that his novels are just long, bittersweet endings to stories that began long before we as readers (or viewers) pick up the thread.

Having a strong background in Graham Greene 101, many of his trademarks are easily spotted in This Gun For Hire - a young girl out to meet the world, an old man reflecting on his part in it, young hopefuls pitted against its cruelty, young cynics battling on through it; the general bent of characters is towards introspection, creating deeper characterisations and relationships than many other films of the era. Greene's overall tone is unmistakeable, no matter how much the setting and characters have been shifted - it's not surprising that this is only the first of his stories appearing on our noir list.

Interestingly, this is the first noir to feature any mention of the War that had been going on for nearly three years, although The Maltese Falcon was filmed only a year previously, and Pepe le Moko was filmed in Europe only two years before war broke out. It's here we see the beginning of the true American noir cycle, where the war can no longer be brushed off as a distant European problem - it begins to feel 'close to home' in a way that must have been extremely unsettling to Americans still feeling the effects of the Depression. The excellent denouement in the wide marble hallways of a Los Angeles chemical firm features mistaken identities due to the company-wide gas-mask drill, a scene that probably had a lot more meaning for the English readers of Greene than the American viewers of the film.

However the moralistic ending feels rushed, Alan Ladd's sudden change of heart after being persuaded by Veronica Lake to do the right thing for his country seems almost incongruous, or perhaps even beside the point - not for a noir anti-hero the nationalistic sentiments, the with-us-or-against-us attitude. He's been wronged his whole life, and he craves revenge.
That he gets it whilst still doing a good deed may have satisfied the morality censors of the time, but it doesn't quite fit with the self-serving attitude we expect from our anti-heroes. We might be able to see Raven's final deed as a mixture of Pepe le Moko's desperate caged-animal finalé and Sam Spade's sense of right and fair.
But one can't help thinking that Spade would never have played the sap, not even for his country…

Blahblahblahtoby review

As with most of the great classic period films noir This Gun For Hire is based on the thrilling fiction of the era; this time famed English literary master Graham Greene saw his 1936 novel adapted for American audiences in 1941.

Alan Ladd as The Raven is one of the great early noir protagonists, a man who would beat a woman because she kicked his cat and then apologise by buying her a designer dress, a man who shows so little emotion and compassion for others but is hiding a dark and disturbing past which when relayed allows us an insight in to his character and makes his behaviour almost understandable.

Foreshadowing later noirs such as Melville’s excellent Le Samourai, as a man he exists in solitude, his trenchcoat and fedora a uniform worn with pride, not hesitating to remove any obstacle between himself and freedom.

Laird Cregar as the effeminate Willard Gates, responsible for the set up of our antihero, is a much more palatable version of the Sydney Greenstreet character from The Maltese Falcon, relying less on caricature and a bit more on the subtlety of character and performance to establish his role in proceedings.

Whilst Veronica Lake is the femme fatale without intending to be, she isn’t evil, she is working for the good of her country but still leads The Raven to his inevitable demise with a flutter of her eyelashes and an appeal to his hidden better nature as only a beautiful woman with her own agenda in a noir film could achieve.

Blending location shooting with studio back lots you are treated to a some of the noir staples; late nights and expressionistic lighting in dirty looking locations such as a gasworks and sewer during a particularly enjoyable late night chase scene, together with some simple Hollywood musical numbers including one rather racy fetishistic fisherman/mermaid scene.

From the point of view of the noir motifs this is a film that is obvious with its wartime propaganda (Mr Big is in bed with the Japanese, selling chemical secrets.) But it also makes use of the Cops vs Robbers angle and the On The Run motif as The Raven looks to escape the police by fleeing the state but inevitably submits to his fate.

In much the same way I saw Shanghai Express as entertaining but Pepe Le Moko as a more rewarding viewing experience the comparison can be made of the two early noirs chosen for the Noir-a-Thon. This Gun For Hire is an entertaining early noir, it doesn’t have the shine or gloss or fast talking exposition of The Maltese Falcon. In the pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (in roles that made them Hollywood stars) you get a highly charged affair which leaves you expecting one thing but delivered another, this coupled with the powerful sense of doom that surrounds The Raven, despite his best efforts to continue living, make for a highly rewarding viewing experience.

Seen this one? Got any other favourite Alan Ladd performances? Disagree with us skipping The Glass Key? Leave some blah below and tune in later for the second part of this weeks double feature, Double Indemnity.

And now for some coming attractions


  1. Glad you guys are back. Haven't seen this one. Actually I'm a stranger to this entire era of noir, but that last screenshot, and the one with the gas masks are very cool. I think because I have a preference for wide shots and real looking settings.

  2. @BT - the last shot doesn't do justice to the incredible bridge sequence actually. I wouldn't be surprised if visual effects were used because it's almost dizzying in it's length at one point. Being a fan of realism in your location and wide shots I can see why you're not too acquainted with early American cinema. Noir especially excels at a claustrophobic atmosphere.

  3. This is a very fine early noir and good job framing it up. Alan Ladd is definitely the precursor to Alain Delon in Le Samourai and good job in mentioning this homage that Melville would create later. We must make mention of Lake. She's hot, hot, hot and her chemistry with Ladd is really good.

  4. Hey Bonjour Tristesse!
    I had to toss up between three amazing screenshots of the bridge sequence for this post, see here and here for the others.

    It's pretty unusual for a noir to include such a wide open scenario as this, but it's just another way that Graham Greene's touch shines through the Hollywood gloom...

  5. @JON - thanks for stopping by and the kind words. It's odd that neither of us really mentioned LAKE, one of us will usually pick up on the femme fatale. After being so unimpressed with her in GLASS KEY she was certainly impressive in this.

    @LEAH - no What Indie Nights? post about the costumes etc this week?

  6. It is good to see these posts running again|!! Welcome back my friends!!

    I always like to read your reviews on these films!! You are both very talented and it makes me sick!

  7. @SL - well we certainly don't mean to make you feel bad. you think you'll be joining us for one of these posts soon?