This Gun for Hire (1942)

*. Surely most actors know that bad guys are the best parts. I can’t see why anyone would have thought that the romantic leading man Michael Crane was going to be the star of this piece. Not only is the character of the hit-man Raven more interesting, it’s also a bigger part. And so Alan Ladd would be launched on his way to a kind of stardom here, while Robert Preston . . . not so much. It’s just like no one can forget Richard Widmark, or remember Victor Mature, in Kiss of Death.
*. I was surprised to see Graham Greene’s name in the credits. It’s based on a novel of his called A Gun for Sale (1936) that I don’t believe is even in print anymore. I haven’t read it. That should have been another tip-off to anyone that playing the bad guy was going to be the juicier role.
*. An aside: Greene’s story would be filmed again in as Short Cut to Hell (1957), the only film directed by James Cagney.
*. Casting the baby-faced Ladd as Raven here was a bit of a leap. He reminded me of the equally pretty Alain Delon in Le Samouraï. At 5’6″ he wasn’t a looming physical presence either, but playing against the 5’2″ Veronica Lake probably helped (they’d work together three more times, with The Glass Key being the next up). Meanwhile, do we ever see him in the frame together with Preston?
*. The casting also makes Ellen’s falling for Raven even more problematic. Isn’t it kind of obvious that she feels a lot more for him than she does for her husband-to-be Mike? Even after Raven tries to kill her, and has gone back on his word to not use his gun and shot a police officer, she still won’t give him up. That’s just weird.
*. The supporting cast is great. I like seeing Laird Cregar in anything, and Tully Marshall dipping his biscuits in milk is wonderful. Some of the minor characters are fun too. I really like the nurse at the end getting his licks in at Brewster.
*. Having built him up, the character of Raven is actually less interesting the more time you spend with him. Apparently all he needed was some psychotherapy to deal with a childhood trauma. And the thing for cats is too pat. I liked him better the way he’s first introduced, being almost needlessly cruel. Though not quite the sadistic psycho Widmark would play a few years later. That really was a jolt.
*. I’m always surprised at the economy of the noirs of this period. There’s a lot of plot to get through here, and they do it in 81 minutes, with two music/magic show numbers thrown in for good measure. The action moves at a good pace and transitions well through Raven’s various near escapes. It’s not quite one of the greats, but solid from the beginning almost to the end. That tacky coda is just a bit too much.

7 thoughts on “This Gun for Hire (1942)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Not seen this since the 80’s on C4; Greene’s work was a cinematic staple, but the more pared down it was, the more it caught the feel of his writing. Later adaptations were overblown, but this is more terse….

      1. Alex Good Post author

        He had a good essay in the later editions on the decline and fall of the movies that was good. He was grouchy, but he was consistent about what he liked, which is something I appreciate.

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        Like Kubrick, he was all in favour of making all screens square, and I’d distrust any view he had post 1966. But still a remarkable critic, even if many of his later opinions are weird, they’re his for sure.

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