This Gun For Hire (1942) — one of the finest of the early film noirs available — and the first to show off the mutual talents of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd — is a film noir to the core. This classic film noir features a troubled protagonist, a strange mix of genres, and a mean streak that has you questioning its cruelty from the off. This Gun for Hire might be the title, in fact, but I would on occasion simply like to refer to it as Psychopaths of 1942 — because that is what it is like at times.
There are a handful of foreign agent films to refer to when trying to place This Gun for Hire in a firm historical context. These are pictures that either concentrate on or combine the idea of war-effort with their criminal thrust — such as Foreign Correspondent (1940) — Foreign Agent (1942) — Saboteur (1942) — Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) — Invisible Agent (1942) — The Fallen Sparrow (1943) — and Ministry of Fear (1944).
A handy list of the spy films of the 1940s is available at flickchart.com, and it is little wonder that given the world had gone back to war, and that technology had moved from tanks, trenches and gas, to aeroplanes and atoms, that espionage was much on the military and public mind. Here then, in This Gun For Hire, we have a blend of stuff we do understand — domestic crime coupled with musical numbers and some pretty familiar hoods, with some more slightly unusual elements — psychopathy, the evils of big business and the international threat arising from top secrets going astray.
Sometimes I fear that of all the violence we see on our screens today began in this era, the early 1940s, because things got nasty in certain places. It was not the norm in its day to see such callous cruelty on screen, and if the psychopathic Raven (Alan Ladd) had a precursor, it was in the horror films of the previous decade, and more likely still, those from Europe.
The psychopath, who is common on our screens today, was not such a well-known personage in the 1940s, and if there is any outstanding oddity to his appearance in This Gun For Hire, it is the example of his being drawn to the felines. It’s strange but true — Alan Ladd as Raven is the killer, yes, but he is the killer with the cat.
Film Noir Elements: Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, the hat, the gun . . . . and the cat
There is little to say about Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd that hasn’t been said elsewhere, but they are simply incredible in This Gun For Hire — they make one of these cinematic pairings that are truly immortal, and will be worth watching for all time. Whereas the story and the setting, the themes and the dialogue will all go out of date, Veronica Lake’s beauty and style will be unlikely to fade, and then there is the chemistry — the fatal chemistry — which you can only enjoy when you see a couple like Lake and Alan Ladd perform. In one sense you are watching something outdated and old — and yet their acting is fresh, and stands the test of time, as the cliché has it.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942)
Graham Greene must not be overlooked as another star of the piece, as this was very much his era. Of all the writers of the day, few were more successful as both novelists and as film writers as was Graham Greene, who found a natural second home on the screen. Greene always seemed to have an insider’s knowledge of the issues, and he traversed the globe with ease, writing about many different environments, tackling comedy, crime, revenge stories, and of course spy stories like this one.
In the 1940s, however, the panacea for escape from the horror and weariness of the war years was provided by film musicals and their elaborate production numbers, simplistic plots, and music. Of course musicals were one of the great staples of the period, and there are two musical numbers in This Gun For Hire — the excellent magical act musical number — and later, an extremely fishy black rubber musical spot for Veronica Lake, which is quite strange and doesn’t quite hit the mark, although doubtless her costume would have raised a few peckers.
“One moment, instead of her heart, the Ace of Spades is there.”
The lethal combination of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake was first discovered in This Gun For Hire. Alan Ladd, in his first lead role, is ruthless, vengeful and unsmiling and works for a pair of double-crossers who are both selling secrets to the Japanese. Veronica Lake also came into her own here, although she was already well-known, at least as a wartime pinup, and she plays an extremely rounded character who is a showgirl, singer, magician, hostage and also a federal agent. It is a weird set of talents and roles she adopts, as she assumes the mantle of both heroine and victim at various times, while cramming in chanteuse, sex symbol, assertive female and magician as she sweeps away the viewer with one of the most consummate performances of the decade.
As a story of political corruption and murder, this Graham Greene story was similar in part Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key (1942), which Lake and Ladd also starred in for Paramount Studios , which was a Dashiell Hammett adaptation. The popular noir couple also starred in George Marshall's post-war crime thriller The Blue Dahlia (1946), with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Raymond Chandler — and this was the only work Chandler ever wrote directly for the screen. But their chemistry was and always appears to be dynamite, and it is probably at its best here.
Superlative Film Noir
Despite the intense promise, Veronica Lake did not survive Hollywood, and the worst thing she ever did was cut her hair. Hollywood is and has always been cruel, and the price some have had to pay for their fame has been paid in alcoholism, heartbreak and the sort of long slow decline that is peculiar only to the movies.
Veronica Lake in Weird Rubber Suit for a Fishing Song in This Gun For Hire
Here was one of the most talented women of the film noir era, who had a distinctive look and a quality that few actresses have ever been able to match, and sadly life fell apart for her, in part due to the sexist nature of the business, and the fact that all the studios could see for her was that one golden moment when she had charmed everybody. After 1950 then came a string of poorly conceived and received films, then television and obscurity, and she died in the early 1970s at the age of 53 from hepatitis.
Veronica Lake finished up in a strange film called Flesh Feast in 1970, in which she plays a deranged scientist who clones Hitler and a breed of flesh eating maggots, solely that she might throw the maggots in the face of the clone. It's not how I best remember Veronica Lake, although the clip imay be worth watching just to see how bad things really got. Because they got bad . . . real bad.