Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake found themselves partnered together on numerous occasions partially out of convenience (at 5’6 and 4’11 they were a perfect height match) but also there’s a genuine chemistry between them. And it all came into being with This Gun for Hire an economical film-noir where Ladd wasn’t even one of the top-billed stars.
Those coveted positions above the title went to Lake and the relatively young buck Robert Preston with Ladd tacked on with an “Introducing” title card. It was his latest attempt to break into the film industry that had long relegated him to bit parts and uncredited cameos (ie. Citizen Kane). It worked.
His menacing thug Raven is the first character we meet and he soon proves his brooding menace is more than just show. He is a gun for hire after all and he finishes up some business for a client getting his payoff through a nervous and portly fellow named Gates (Laird Cregar). But the money is hot and Raven soon finds a price on his head. He’s been had and he’s not about the let that slide.
The main push from the law enforcement is led by none other than Michael Crane (Robert Preston) who has recently been vacationing with his girlfriend Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake). As he burns the midnight oil she has her own gig as a magician/nightclub singer while also taking on some clandestine activities — activities that’s she sworn not to tell anyone about — even her beau.
As we might expect with the tenets of noir, the film is a lot bigger than we are initially led to believe, not simply involving murder, but also treason and government secrets as Pearl Harbor is still fresh on everyone’s minds. In such a way, our three leads get tied up both literally and figuratively as Raven continues as a fugitive in search of the man who set him up.
He too crosses paths with Ellen and in her, he finds a kind of confidante who doesn’t immediately write him off, despite his deadly tendencies. Before her he only liked cats, the reason, they don’t need anyone, rather like him. But he’s also not about to reform, not until his work is done.
Although its transitions are at times choppy and awkward, there’s indisputably an intrigue that courses through This Gun For Hire that makes it a diverting bit of noir and its latter half is the pinnacle of the action as the dragnet closes in around Raven. For the 1940s, it was a crackerjack finale but unfortunately, it’s sullied now by an abrupt happy ending. No matter.
While Robert Preston is a fairly flat lead, Veronica Lake is her usual playfully sympathetic self and Laird Cregar plays the spineless oaf to perfection. His slimy sort is one of the reasons noir becomes so wickedly delectable. In fact, he’s perhaps second only to Alan Ladd’s characterization because over the course of the film Ladd systematically steals the picture, taking every little bit of limelight and making it count. Solidifying his stardom by playing a highly compelling heavy and essentially stealing the girl away from his male costar.
Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and perhaps most notably James Cagney, all played corrupt, crazed, and vindictive gangsters at one time or another. What sets Ladd apart is his utterly emotionless eyes. They’re still the eyes of a stone cold killer but there’s a vast emptiness there. Anyways it’s the perfect laconic performance for film-noir and while he never reached the heights of Bogart (also a former supporting player), Alan Ladd rightfully so gained recognition for his own career — most notably in Shane. But everything has to start somewhere and This Gun For Hire is precisely that film. His mark is all over it.