Released in 1942 at the beginning of the film noir craze, This Gun For Hire became a box office smash and launched the career of celebrated actor Alan Ladd. It also helped set the genre in motion, assisting in laying down the groundwork and further enforcing the rules by which the genre should follow.
This Gun For Hire follows a trio of likeable characters in a classically convoluted plot. Alan Ladd plays a hitman named Raven, who is paid to wipe out the blackmailer of a powerful chemical company. Raven is double-crossed by getting paid in marked bills, so he decides to travel to Los Angeles to seek revenge. Getting caught up in Raven’s activities is a night-club entertainer named Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), who is travelling to Los Angeles to be with her boyfriend Michael Crane (Robert Preston), who just so happens to be the police detective assigned to hunt down Raven. With all three now in Los Angeles the action truly begins, leading to an exciting finale.
The film is loosely based on the book A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene. The script takes only the core of the story, a hitman being both the hunter and hunted, and throws it in a film noir setting. It follows the film noir template perfectly, featuring all the classic plot devices, characters, dialogue and cinematography you’ve come to expect from the genre. It even has a rainy Los Angeles, which is beautifully shot and the earliest example of outside LA in film noir. The photography really is gorgeous, with Universal’s restoration of the film being of a very high standard.
As mentioned, This Gun For Hire launched the career of Alan Ladd. Despite only getting fourth billing for the film, his cold killer with a conscious had never been seen on screen before and his outstanding performance turned him into an overnight superstar. Ladd became one of the most popular actors of the 40s and 50s and was universally adored by the public and industry. He was named the easiest actor to work with in the industry, his professionalism and relaxed attitude made him a rarity in Hollywood which lead to dozens of classic roles.
The supporting cast also put in great performances. Whilst Veronica Lake’s Ellen is dating Preston’s detective, it is her relationship with Raven that sparked the public’s attention. Lake and Ladd shared a rare cinematic chemistry and it led to 6 more on-screen performances. Preston is solid, whilst not the best performance I’ve seen from him, his soft but thorough detective is the perfect anti-Raven. All three leads are lovable, with only the villains letting down proceedings. Cregar is the major villain, as the wimpy William Gates, his performance is not great and is never a match for Raven. Tully Marshall makes a late appearance as Gates’ evil string puller, but it is too little too late.
This Gun For Hire moves at the pace of bullet, it is only 80 minutes long and never allows the audience to stop and take a breath. The story is convoluted, but sticks to the genre norms and it unravels superbly, leading to a ruthless and no-holds-barred finale. Ladd is fantastic to watch, he is immensely likable but also terrifying and unpredictable, he is the ultimate film noir anti-hero. It needed a strong villain to push it into the upper echelon, but This Gun For Hire follows the rulebook and as such it is a classic film noir.
4.0 out of 5.0