Saturday, November 29, 2008

Target #36: This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle)

Directed by: Frank Tuttle

Written by: Graham Greene (novel), Albert Maltz (writer), W.R. Burnett (writer)

As a piece of cinema, Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire (1942) is both brief and insignificant, a throwaway crime story about a hardened assassin, a glamorous girl, a police manhunt and an international conspiracy. It's just what you'd expect from an adaptation of Graham Greene's "A Gun for Sale," one of those novels with such low literary aspirations that the author affectionately labelled them "entertainments" to distinguish from his more noble and artistic works. Greene certainly wasn't kidding – entertainment is provided in great abundance, the film delivering short and sharp thrills that keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. Alan Ladd, in his first major role, carves up the screen as an emotionally-tormented contract killer who will cradle a kitten in his arms, but won't take kindly to any woman who gets in his way. Veronica Lake, looking positively luminous, is the woman who gets in his way, but whose charms are enough to melt even the hardest of hearts. The success of their teaming spawned a fruitful partnership during the 1940s.

Philip Raven (Ladd) is afforded the introduction of a classic hard-boiled anti-hero. After waking up to lovingly greet a stray cat with fresh milk, he then rips open the dress of the landlady's daughter, who tries to disrupt the cat's breakfast, before reprimanding her with a taut slap across the side of the face. Raven is not presented to us as a hero, but neither as a villain; like all good film noir protagonists, his personality and motivations are tantalisingly ambiguous, and so our sympathies towards him are confused. Blonde bombshell Veronica Lake arrives on the scene with a lively performance of "Now You See It, Now You Don't" (her singing voice dubbed by Martha Mears) that is sure to have any male viewers quickly sitting upright. In this film, Lake has none of the frail passiveness that of her follow-up Ladd collaboration The Glass Key (1942), instead bringing an independent and subtly erotic charm that is reminiscent of what Lauren Bacall would provide two years later in To Have and Have Not (1944).

Alan Ladd here also benefits from the absence of a love interest. One of the few weaknesses of The Glass Key was the unintentionally awkward romantic sequences between Lake and himself. Ladd can surely play hard-boiled, but he doesn't do tender very well (unless the object of his affection is feline). In 'This Gun for Hire,' his relationship with Lake is first one of necessity, but gradually transforms into a mutual respect, and an understanding that hints just enough at sexual attraction without drawing attention to it. Robert Preston is adequate, though oddly insubstantial as the film's most reputable character, and Laird Cregar is interesting as the plump and cowardly villain who's inadvertently bitten off more than he can chew. The film winds down in its final twenty minutes or so, and the finale's weak attempt at patriotism – an apparent obligation under the current political climate – serves to distance the modern viewer from the engrossing and intimate thriller we had previously enjoyed. Nevertheless, if you see it on the rental shelf, this gun is very much worth hiring out.

Currently my #3 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
3) This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle) *
4) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)
5) The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler) *