No Misfire, But No Surefire Either

It's too harsh and wrong to say that This Gun For Hire misfires. It's a moderately entertaining film noir with sparks courtesy of leads Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. Their unconsummated, smouldering chemistry together would get them paired again in later noirs The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia, but this is perhaps the best Lake-Ladd film. But This Gun could have been so much more. There's a wild story by novelist Graham Greene trying to bust out in this film but straight-laced direction by director Frank Tuttle keeps it sadly in check.

I say this because parts of This Gun made me recall The Maltese Falcon without attaining such remarkable heights. Like The Maltese Falcon, everyone runs around after an intangible object (so intangible here it disappears ten minutes into the film). The musical score sounds similar. And it has an effeminate fat guy, though this one is less jokily-named than Falcon's Gutman. Simpering hand-wringing Willard Gates, chemical company executive by day and nightclub owner by, well, night, hires lone gunman Raven (Alan Ladd). He kills the man who's blackmailing Gates' boss and retrieve a chemical formula. In return for a job well-done, Gates double-crosses Raven by paying him with marked money and siccing the cops on him. Raven goes on the run and comes after Gates, but he's got company. Veronica Lake shows up as an even more efficient multi-tasker than Gates. She's Ellen Graham, magician, singer and secret agent for the U.S. government. And you thought your job put too many demands on you.

Graham's out to bust Gates and his boss Brewster for not being true to the red, white and blue. They're secretly peddling poison gas formulae to the enemy during wartime. Since Brewster and Gates get back the secret formula within the first ten minutes of the film thanks to Raven's ruthless efficiency, you may wonder why the film didn't end there and then with the Feds swooping in to arrest them. You would be letting logic get in the way of enjoying the movie's real attractions. No, not Veronica Lake dancing in black latex and heels (though that comes close), but the overwrought plot and the attraction between good girl Lake and bad boy Ladd. She's engaged to a cop (Robert Preston) but apparently not too happily because Raven gets to take her hostage not once but twice. Raven shoots at people, she mothers him. He spills about the unhappy childhood that drove him to become an assassin, she reminds him of his patriotic duty as an American. The screenplay may be awkward, but there's nothing clumsy about the chemistry of these two.

As a film noir, This Gun For Hire is innovative for portraying Raven as both ruthless killer and sympathetic figure. Alan Ladd gets fourth billing but he's the star of the show from the opening shot where Raven wakes up to a grubby, solitary life, to the final shot where Raven closes his eyes blessed by the beaming madonna played by Lake.

(July 31, 2002)

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