This Gun for Hire (1942): Frank Tuttle’s Noir Crime Drama that Made Alan Ladd Major Star

This Gun for Hire, the popular crime drama of 1942, is best known today as the film that catapulted blond handsomer Alan Ladd into major stardom, even though he did not get star billing.

Grade: B+ (****1/2* out of *****)

This Gun for Hire
This Gun for Hire (1942) poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

 

Initially, the director Seitz wished to cast Robert Preston (who was more established then) as the lead, but then decided that, for the sake of credibility and authenticity, an unknown actor would serve the material better.

Once cast, the script was reworked to fit better Ladd’s physical attributes and style of acting. In the process, his character, originally a secondary one, became the center, and the romantic angle (see below) just one of the subplots.

The movie is directed by Frank Tuttle, from a skillful screenplay by W. R. Burnett, based on Graham Greene’s novel A Gun for Sale.

Ladd plays Phillip Raven, a professional killer who reports to his boss, columnist Willard Gates (Laird Cregar). But when he collects his $1000 fee, he discover that Gates has double-crossed him, a plot orchestrated by Gates’ boss, the crooked business executive Alvin Bewster (Tully Marshall).

Meanwhile, detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston), hot on the trail of Bewster and Gates, talks his girlfriend, nightclub singer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake, with the famous blonde hair), into taking a job at Gates’ club.

Seeking revenge for being set up, Raven bursts into the mansion in search of Gates, rescues Ellen while planning to use her as hostage. Hiding out together in the rail yards, Ellen and Raven get to know each other.

Ellen hopes to reform him, but when the cops arrive, Raven escapes out of the hiding place, rushing towards the inevitable showdown with Bewster and Gates.  The chase, impressively shot, contributed a thematic-visual element to film noir, lengthy (almost surreal) chase through a busily populated urban milieu.

Read our review of Alan Ladd’s good Western, The Proud Rebel, starring Olivia de Havilland and his own real son.

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Stiff and straight, Ladd is well cast as the disturbed, detached, truly scary killer, an emotionless machine that doesn’t care about anybody or anything.

Over the past two decades, young generation of scholars and critics have revisited this film, elevating it to the level of an early (and excellent) film noir.

Though they have few scenes together, the chemistry between Ladd and Lake was strong enough to merit further teaming of the duo as romantic couple in “The Glass Key,” “The Blue Dahlia,” and “Saigon.”

The great scholar James Naremore has pointed out Paramount’s safe political handling, divesting the film of the anti-Semitism that prevails in the novel, but stressed the film’s achievements in its expressionist visual style and in establishing a new character type, “the angelic killer.”

The movie was remade in 1957 as “Short Cut to Hell,” directed by the movie star Jimmy Cagney.

Credits:

Directed by Frank Tuttle
Produced by associate Richard Blumenthal
Screenplay by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, based on novel A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
Music by David Buttolph
Cinematography John Seitz
Edited by Archie Marshek
Production and distribution: Paramount Pictures

Release date: April 24, 1942

Running time: 81 minutes
Budget: about $500,000
Box office $1 million (US rentals)