Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This Gun for Hire (1942)

These essays are intended for people that have already seen the films being discussed. This entry will DEFINITELY spoil parts of the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet.

Alan Ladd's first film role is as Raven, the Gun of the title. He is hired to kill a scientist who has been stealing secrets from the company he works for. Once the deed is done and the secrets are retrieved, Raven is double-crossed by the company representative (Laird Cregar) who pays him in marked bills. In a convoluted plot, Ladd decides to track down Cregar for revenge, while running from Robert Preston, the LA cop who was on vacation in San Francisco visiting his girlfriend, Veronica Lake, who has also been tapped by the government to keep an eye on Cregar, because she is a combination cabaret singer/magician that has been hired in Cregar's club and ends up sitting next to Ladd on the train to LA.

Raven is easily the most ambivalent character so far in the series. Clearly a contract killer, he is also a victim. In the beginning minutes of the film, he feeds a stray cat that comes to his hotel window, but has no trouble beating the cleaning woman that tries to shoe the cat away. He has done more heinous things than any other character in the film, but Cregar and his boss, "The Old Man" (Tully Marshall), are painted as the true villains for their disloyalty to country.

Finally in the series we have a film from the point of view of a true criminal, and a film structured as a straightforward suspense thriller, with no flashbacks. But even so, this career criminal, this paid assassin, is given a freudian excuse for his deviant ways. You see, his mother was abusive and hit him with an iron when he was young, breaking his arm in such a way that he still carries the deformity, a physical reminder of the past he cannot escape in his mind. And since violence breeds violence, he had no choice but to become a killer.

There has been a steady build-up of fatalism in the series, particularly in the last three films. Not coincidentally, these have all been from the point of view of the people who commit the crimes, in a time still under the Hayes Code that instructed all crimes be paid for by the end of the film, and it comes to its final fruition in this film. The contract killer is struck down by the straight-laced cop, but finds an amount of redemption before he goes, protecting the woman who trusted him.

There is some of the dramatic, expressionistic lighting you would expect to find. But, being straightforward, there is little oneiric or strange about the film. The remorseless killing is the heart of cruelty, as Veronica Lake is the heart of eroticism, and all this puts THIS GUN FOR HIRE at the heart of the film noir movement.

Next time: The Killers

No comments: