One actor and one actress have been given Veronicas (revealed in a few hours), and without revealing too much let’s just say this movie was part coincidence; have I given the game away? I feel bad because my Netflix copy of This Gun for Hire has been in my room for four months and I’ve finally watched it. With a few Veronica Lake noirs under my belt, this film is better than The Glass Key in terms of Veronica’s character and a somewhat navigable plot. The story feels as convoluted as Glass Key, although events are restrained by a smaller cast of characters. It’s easily the best of the Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake films I’ve experienced, so far.
Hired killer Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) gets mixed up in a world of chemical formulas and treason when he’s double-crossed by employer Willard Gates (Laird Cregar). Desperate to clear his name, Raven meets up with nightclub singer/magician Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) to get to the bottom of the mystery.
This was the first pairing of the underrated movie duo Lake and Ladd, and it’s easier on the brain than the Dashiell Hammett adaptation of The Glass Key. The basic premise has Raven being a hired killer who’s double-crossed by Gates; Gates needs access to a senator and hires Ellen, but gets paranoid when Ellen and Raven surreptitiously meet on a train, thus making Gates believe that Ellen is with Raven. That’s the basic gist, but I was never truly sure if events were explained properly or simply left to wander together as needed. The constant twisting back and forth is easier with only a handful of characters, but Lake stands out as an anomaly. I was left unsure of whether Ellen meets up with Willard by chance, and/or what about her makes her worthy of integrating within the plot. She’s the character created out of convenience, such as dating a cop (played by Robert Preston) that tracks down her and Raven. Thankfully, the story is brisk enough and the characters are fun to watch, so it’s not necessarily a ding against it.
Alan Ladd was “introduced” to audiences with this film, and it’s a far cry from the tough guy with a heart of gold roles he would personify; the film does inject him with that trait by the end (of course he just needed the love/respect of a good woman), but overall Ladd puts on a convincing, and chilling performance. He has no compunction toward killing an unarmed woman simply because she inhabits the same house as a man he’s just killed; he’s prepared to kill Ellen before falling in love with her, and he gets a total attack of crazy face when he discusses killing his abusive aunt as a child; “I wanted her dead!” However, the audience understands that while Raven may not enjoy humans, he does love cats; an animal that personifies independence and nurturing in one.
Being a fan of Veronica Lake, it’s no surprise that I adored her in this. Her best dramatic performance was in I Wanted Wings, but her best noir performance is here. Lake is game to go along with her role in the plot, even though it’s hard to decipher what exactly said role is. Ellen is a woman who appears to know the plot ahead of time, but goes along with its contrivances. Her performance is light and frivolous when necessary – the scenes of her doing magic and singing are delightful – but quiet and afraid during serious moments. Similar to her role in The Glass Key, she isn’t manipulative or dangerous like other femme fatales; she’s a woman who wants to start a family and ends up in a poor situation. Her relationship with Ladd is developed in a Stockholm Syndrome/pity way. Her best relationship sequences are opposite Robert Preston; both have a natural, affectionate chemistry and Lake appears at her happiest. I was quite surprised that, considering their grand plans, neither one died.
I also found Laird Cregar to be a hilarious surprise as the neurotic villain that kickstarts it all. In a way, it’s a prequel to his work as the Devil in Heaven Can Wait. Overall, This Gun for Hire is a complex noir that invests in the character’s humanity. Veronica Lake is given her best noir role and it’s a perfect break-out performance for Ladd.
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