Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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You learn everything you need to know about Alan Ladd’s character in the first five minutes of This Gun For Hire, the whip-smart, whistle-quick film noir classic from 1942.
Tough guy Philip Raven rolls out of bed, wipes the sleep from his eyes and stares at his trenchcoat draped over a nearby chair. In the pocket of that trenchcoat is a note—instructions for his latest hitman assignment. Raven stares at the note and we see what looks like a weary grimace pass over his face (though it’s hard to read anything on his stoic expression). He folds the note, gets dressed, then feeds the stray cat that’s been coming in his San Francisco apartment for a bowl of milk every morning.
It’s a rare moment in tough-guy cinema when Raven reaches down to tenderly pet the stray tabby. What?! What’s he doing?!! He’s not going soft, is he? The next thing you know, Humphrey Bogart will be taking up ballet.
But that’s not the most important moment. That comes a minute later when the cleaning lady (a trampy-looking dame—there’s no other way to describe her) comes into his room and shoos the cat with a kick of her foot. Without hesitation, Raven walks up, grabs her and plants a cold hard slap across her face.
“Go on, beat it,” he growls.
“You oughta buy me a new dress,” she whines, lifting a bare shoulder where he’s torn the fabric.
“Go on, I said. Beat it.”
If that gal hadn’t high-tailed it out of his room just then, it’s pretty obvious that Raven might have done worse than slap her around. No one, but no one, kicks his cat and gets away with it. Raven’s fondness for felines comes into play much later in the film when he’s corned by the police in a railroad boxcar with Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) and another stray cat wanders into their hiding place. He picks it up and starts to softly stroke the fur.
“You like cats, don’t you?” Ellen purrs.
Raven comes dangerously close to smiling. “Yeah, I guess. They’re on their own. They don’t need anybody.”
The math is pretty simple: raven + cat = the same thing. And as long as we’re talking about symbolism, we might as well mention that his black-feathered namesake is also a bit of a loner-bird.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s go back to that apartment and that tough slap. It’s a pretty shocking moment and director Frank Tuttle doesn’t let the camera flinch. This Raven character is one tough dude—pretty heartless to be slapping a dame over a flea-bit cat. And yet, we can see through the hard shield of the trenchcoat to Raven’s vulnerable side.
That soft spot—also known as compassion and nobility—is about to get him in hotter water. He does the assassination—gunning down a chemist who was tangled up with a scheme to sell a secret government formula for poison gas to the enemy—but then Raven learns he’s been double-crossed by the man who hired him. Soon, he’s on the run from both the cops and the bad guys.
Scriptwriters Albert Matz and W.R. Burnett adapted Graham Greene’s 1936 novel A Gun For Sale for the screen, shifting the locale from London to California and Hollywoodizing many of the characters (in the novel, Raven has a harelip). They also threw in a fair amount of jingoism directed against the Japanese, so you’ll need to brace yourself for a fair amount of flag-waving in the closing minutes of the film.
When it sticks to the shadows of film noir, however, This Gun For Hire is about as good as they get, clearly able to hold its own in the company of Double Indemnity, Out of the Past and Laura.
Like another lone gunman in a more recent film, Jean Reno in The Professional (1994), Alan Ladd plays for our sympathy even when he’s gunning down men and women (but no cats!). The noose continues to tighten around Raven as the flatfoot cops and the hairy-knuckled bad guys each try to reach him first.
Meanwhile, through a series of nicely-orchestrated circumstances, he is thrown together with Ellen, a nightclub magician (the magic stunts performed by Lake are pretty impressive, by the way). She also happens to be the girlfriend of the detective (Robert Preston) who’s pursuing Raven. This Gun For Hire weaves a very tangled web, but it all makes sense (as far as Hollywood can make sense, that is) and it never for one second stops crackling with excitement and tension—even the obligatory pop songs sung by Ellen don’t completely grind the movie to a halt; thanks to Lake, they are packed to the gills with sexual electricity.
Ah yes, Veronica Lake. It’s about time I got around to her. Alan Ladd may be the central character, but he wasn’t the big draw for this picture when it was first released. He’d been making movies for about nine years, toiling away in bit parts (including an uncredited appearance in Citizen Kane), but this was his first big shot at a substantial role. The studio didn’t know what they had on their hands—he got below-the-title billing (in fact, he gets an “introducing” credit here). No, it was Veronica Lake, the sultry blonde with the peek-a-boo hairstyle audiences would pack theaters to see. The pairing was so successful, studio heads would later reunite Ladd and Lake in three other feature films, including other noir classics like The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).
It’s not taking anything away from Ms. Lake to say she’s able to hold her own while on screen with Ladd here in This Gun For Hire. Sure, the short, thin leading man would go on to become a bigger movie legend, but Lake is the one thing I always think about when I think about This Gun For Hire (well, her and that poor cat, too).
Her character is a bit of a mystery. We’re never sure why she goes along so easily with Raven after he takes her hostage. Maybe there’s something a little bit dark in the heart of this nice girl, a secret place in her erogenous zone that gets tickled by the danger Raven represents. Whatever. All I know is, Veronica Lake is cool and sexy and utterly riveting every time the camera caresses her high-cheekboned face.
And that voice. Oh my. Every time she speaks, there’s a secret place in my erogenous zone that gets tickled. She reads her lines in that alto voice like her jaw is numb. She’s so cool, her throat is lined with ice. And when, near the end of the movie, she gives Raven a quick, soft kiss on the cheek, he melts.
Almost melts, that is. After all, he’s the quintessential tough guy. She’s a great dame and all, but it’s not like he’s gonna take up ballet.
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