This Gun For Hire (1942) ***

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were Paramount’s Bogart and Bacall in a string of forties noir thrillers of which this is the first and best. Ladd, Bogart’s only serious rival as film noir’s pre-eminent tainted hero until the arrival of Robert Mitchum later in the decade, has not been as well treated by posterity; he looks too delicate and baby-faced to be a tough guy, and at five-foot-five was even shorter than Bogart. Here, however, he cuts an impressively unsympathetic figure as Raven, a hired killer whose aims correspond with those of the American government when he goes after a double-crossing client attempting to frame him for robbery, who also just happens to work for a gang of fifth columnists. En route, his path crosses with Lake’s nightclub novelty chanteuse, acting undercover for the government and after the same man, whose policeman boyfriend is after Raven.
The Graham Greene story on which it is based has been Americanised and updated but with the author’s cynicism and pessimism intact, perhaps therefore giving him certain paternity rights over what were soon to become the standard characterisations of film noir: devious, dangerous and disappointed people, in a shadowy world of seedy nightclubs, rainy streets and Edward Hopper automats, where hero-status is strictly relative. The whole film has a bleakness that makes it a most unusual product of the war years: the villains may be enemy agents, but good guys are in conspicuously short supply. Ladd’s Raven, though he does redeem himself to some extent, is a cold-blooded professional killer, pursuing the film’s main villain for reasons of purely personal revenge. We first see him at work in a chilling sequence in which he turns up at the apartment of his next hit to find the victim’s innocent girlfriend unexpectedly present, and mechanically murders both.
The real hero is Lake’s spunky Ellen; by no means merely decorative, she is intelligent, brave and resourceful (note how she creates a trail for the police to follow when Raven abducts her) and acting from selfless and honourable motives. She’s also dazzlingly beautiful and the only time the film stops frowning is during her fabulously eccentric nightclub numbers (dubbed by singer Martha Mears): ‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t’, performed while pulling cards, silk scarves and canaries from nowhere and appearing and disappearing with trick photography, and ‘I’ve Got You’, performed with a fishing rod, hat and heart-stopping black PVC outfit.
The film also benefits from a fine supporting cast that includes two of my favourite actors at their most deliciously horrid: Tully Marshall and Laird Cregar.