This Gun for Hire

| August 2, 2001 | 0 Comments

“I read somewhere about a kind of doctor, a psycho-something–you tell him your dream, and you don’t have to dream it anymore.”
- Philip Raven

There’s something satisfying in seeing the old-time Hollywood machine produce a film that transcends its gristmill origin. In the case of This Gun for Hire, the film was produced in typical “dream-factory” fashion, but the result is entirely unique, even when compared to the groundbreaking movies made in the initial wave of American noir. Sure the film may pale somewhat when compared to the grim fatalism of Detour, the more detailed characterization of In a Lonely Place, the visual mastery of The Killing or the bone-cracking intensity of Rififi. Yet here’s a film that nevertheless is great–made great by three unexpected measures: faithfulness to the original work, historical providence and brief moments of unintentional weirdness.
The 1940s was the bustling heyday of the Hollywood dream-factory. It was a time when movies shared less in common with paintings then they did with widgets; a place where filmmaking was less an art form than a consumer product (has much changed?). So an interesting way to look at This Gun for Hire is as an example of classic Hollywood product.
American studio films of the Golden Age and before were usually based on outside material that had already established an audience. To boot, an already-existing novel, radio broadcast, serialized magazine or comic strip is a less chancy investment than a wholly original script. It was often cheaper to for studios buy the rights to newly-published novels for pittance, keep an extensive library housed in “the writing building’ and then pay sweatshop-like screenwriters to scribble adaptations after the original work became established hit.
Such was the case with This Gun for Hire, based on the novel A Gun for Sale by renowned British novelist Graham Greene. A Gun for Sale (published two years prior to Brighton Rock, the author’s masterwork of criminal malice and malaise) is considered a minor novel for Greene and as such, makes an ideal vehicle for adaptation–whoever said “bad books make great movies” might have been dead right. In Greene’s novel, Philip Raven, a young contract killer, takes on a job to kill a British diplomat who is bucking for peace in Europe; the businessmen who hire Raven stand to reap a fortune if Britain goes to war. To keep all the strings neatly tied off, the men pay Raven off with counterfeit bills so he is easy to trace.
This Gun for Hire remains relatively faithful to Greene’s novel. The setting is transplanted to the United States and Raven, the assassin is hired by powerful but underhanded men. One of the only significant changes in the adaptation has Raven hired to kill is a blackmailer, not a peaceful diplomat. In the film version, Nitro Chemical Corporation has manufactured a nerve gas that it intends to sell to “the enemy.” The film opens with Nitro insider Will Gates (played with jiggling squeamishness by Laird Cregar) hiring Raven to kill the blackmailer who has acquired a copy of the weapon’s chemical formula.
Paramount used journeyman director Frank Tuttle to helm the film. Tuttle came from a career that stretched all the way back to the early twenties silent era, but his body of work contained few bright points or memorable films. From Paramount’s perspective, Tuttle was a perfect fit for a film that was just one more end product from the studio’s mechanized movie mill.
When it came to casting, Paramount again based its decision on tried-and-true methods. Forties Hollywood was a time and place when the selection of the cast was no less mercantile that the process of adaptation. Veronica Lake was cast to play Ellen Graham, a showgirl hired by a mysterious senator to seduce the suspected traitors. At the time of the film’s release, Lake was on the upswing of a meteoric rise and fall during the nineteen-forties. Paramount executives knew that Lake was burgeoning star (not to mention a popular pinup girl for G.I.s overseas), and they needed male costars who would not upstage the fledging starlet.
They chose Robert Preston to play Lieutenant Michael Crane, Ellen’s fiancée and the top cop on Raven’s trail. Preston had been an accomplished musical stage actor as a young man and starred in numerous but mostly small roles in 1930′s Hollywood. The highpoints in Preston’s film career came while working under Cecil B. DeMille (Union Pacific, Reap the Wind), before a successful return to the stage in the 1950′s.
The final casting ingredient came with the part of Raven. Because the film is faithful to Greene’s novel, the role of the tragic hit man is one of the most compelling of its kind. In 1942, Alan Ladd had already been acting on stage and more frequently in nationally broadcast radio drama; he had only a smattering of experience in the movies. Nevertheless, the press was optimistically touting him as a future star of the silver screen. In the role of Raven, the lost young assassin, Ladd began a climb to become a certified movie star. Despite abbreviated dialogue and a stiff, half-dead acting style (which became his trademark), the audience loved him.
This Gun for Hire did well at the box office and established Lake and Ladd not only as big-name stars in their own right, but also made them a hit as a team, practically on par with Bogart/Bacall or Tracey/Hepburn. Lake and Ladd would go on to star together in a string of noir classics like The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). In short, Paramount covered all the studio bases to produce an inexpensive hit and more importantly, produce a franchise duo out of Lake and Ladd.
So what then of the film itself? What happened when elements chosen for industrial efficiency and cost-benefit return came together? In the same way that Paramount’s line of attack was to pick and choose from a storehouse of stock elements, This Gun For Hire owes its originality to a mishmash of aspects that converge, giving the film a distinctive punch. First, much is owed to A Gun for Sale. Although he produced a more compelling criminal in Brighton Rock‘s misguided delinquent Pinky, in A Gun for Sale Greene clearly shows a keen eye for mingling sympathy with malevolence. In the novel, Raven is a cold-hearted killer, but he’s a killer formed by his environment, produced by a destitute upbringing and the regimented cruelty he encounters at the bottom of the regimented British class system. This compassion extends to the film version with Raven being a brutal, impulsive killer and also an improbably patriotic hero. The real question is how a film like This Gun for Hire was even conceived of in 1942. Only a decade before, the much-derided Hays Code of 1930 explicitly declared: “[murder] shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime…or to inspire others with a desire for imitation”–sentiments of motion picture censorship that were still in favour when This Gun for Hire was released. So how could such a compassionate portrayal of a hired killer managed to pass under the strict noses of 1942 censors? The answer: World War II.
The United States entered the war late, at the tail end of 1941 and more than two years after the first acts of Nazi aggression in Europe. Consequently, 1942 was a year when American review boards welcomed patriotic films. The patriotic bent in This Gun for Hire comes late in the film, when Ellen miraculously deduces Nitro’s plans for its nerve gas. She tells Raven that his revenge on Will Gates should also be extended to the whole corporation as an act of American patriotism. After all, it is every American’s duty to support the war effort–from hit man to milkman. Strangely, this admission is enough to justify Raven’s pointblank killing spree. Combined with the influence of Greene’s novel, the result is an astoundingly sympathetic portrayal of a hardened criminal.
Right up until the final frames, Raven is portrayed as a good guy. The real criminals are Nitro Chemical with their callously capitalist designs on undermining the American war effort. While all film noir (anti)heroes are flawed in some way, when compared his contemporaries, Raven is one of the only characters that openly murders people with almost reckless abandon. Astonishingly, as evidenced in the film’s compassionate final scene, Raven even manages to end up with the audience’s mark of approval.
What makes This Gun for Hire all the more remarkable, is that following armistice, as Hollywood crept toward the nineteen-fifties, conservative censorship–riding on the backs of Joe McCarthy and a “better dead than Red” mentality–would return to Hollywood with a vengeance. It was the inconsistencies of American wartime cultural policy that created a mysterious bubble in which greater thematic freedom was allowed, even with a film like This Gun for Hire, made almost exclusively with the studio profit margin in mind.
Another compelling aspect the film owes to Greene’s novel is a surprisingly intricate plot. Because the film was made in a studio system that favoured hasty, assembly line production, the craft of adaptation was downplayed. It almost appears that the Paramount screenwriters were reading from the novel and asking “…and what happened next?” over and over until the screenplay was finished. Happily, the result is a complex opening in which Raven’s assassination/double-cross plotline is introduced independently of the corporate conspiracy/government plotline and the romantic showgirl/cop plotline; all three are eventually interlaced, but it creates a progressively complex first twenty minutes.
On top of influences from Greene and the WWII timeframe, This Gun for Hire displays a few bizarre but inspired touches that can only be attributed to the cast and crew. First, the film has its obligatory song and dance numbers featuring Veronica Lake. But Lake doesn’t just sing and dance–she does magic too! In a pair of diverting numbers, Lake performs impressive sleight of hand, vanishes behind a oversized fan and magically fills an empty tank with live goldfish, all while singing “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”!
The strangest moment of the film comes during the climatic sequence inside the cloistered walls of Nitro Chemical Corporation. Tommy, Will Gates’ hapless lackey is striding down Nitro’s marble hallways wearing, of all things, a military gasmask. Apparently, there is a test of Nitro’s nerve gas and Tommy liked the mask so much he decided to make it part of his work wear. Unfortunately for Tommy, this offers Raven a ludicrously convenient disguise and it offers a contemporary audience a moment of unintentional humour that eerily enhances the ending.
If you care to do the math, This Gun for Hire lacks certain aspects of a classic film noir that picky aficionados may miss. Notably, the film lacks at least a bit of voice-over flashback narration that links past and present (although a dream sequence of Raven’s childhood was filmed but cut from the theatrical release). The film is also missing a solid femme fatale; Lake’s character is so agreeable she might be called a femme sympathique. Nevertheless, This Gun for Hire is a compelling noir thanks to the faithful influence of Greene novel, the peculiarities of wartime censorship and a handful of unexpectedly nutty moments.
To some observers, the film noir genre did not reach its prototypical peak until Jacques Tourneur-directed Out of the Past in 1947. Perhaps in the same way that Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale was leading up to the superior Brighton Rock, This Gun for Hire was breaking new ground and broadening movie subject matter in order to pave the way for even greater examples of American noir.
Notes:

  • Watch for what I suspect was the inspiration behind The Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns and Smithers in the characters of Alvin Brewster, President of Nitro Chemical Corp, and Drew, his disgruntled nurse (played by Tully Marshall and Victor Kilian, respectively).
  • This Gun for Hire was remade as Short Cut to Hell in 1957, which was the only film directed by Jimmy Cagney.

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