ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Melanie Novak writes about the Golden Age of Hollywood, infusing her weekly movie reviews with history, gossip, and the glamour of the studio era. You can read her reviews at www.melanienovak.com and follow her on Instagram @novak_melanie or Twitter @MelanieANovak.
Every fiction writer has experienced the moment when a character takes over a story in a way the author never suspected—or intended. I’d bet this is what happened during the filming of This Gun for Hire. Like any good writer, director Frank Tuttle knew that when a character muscles his or her way into the spotlight, it’s wisest to get out of the way and hand over the reins.
While Robert Preston gets top male billing, Alan Ladd (with an “introducing” credit) runs away with the picture. Ladd stars as Raven, a hitman with a soul. Though he executes his work—and his revenge—with a single-minded ruthlessness, he has soft spots for disabled children, cats, and one Ellen Graham, a woman who shows him kindness but not pity when she’s pulled by circumstances into his revenge plot.
Veronica Lake plays Ellen, and though she’s supposed to be over the moon to marry Preston’s cop Michael Crane, the screen sizzles when she’s with Raven. The chemistry was so apparent to Paramount that it put Lake and Ladd together in three more films after Gun, including Ladd’s first top billed role in The Glass Key (1942).
Based on Graham Greene’s 1936 novel, the plot revolves around Raven’s thirst for revenge when Willard Gates pays him for a hit with marked money and tries to have him executed. The man behind the money is the real villain, as he’s selling chemical compounds to Japan to make bombs that will be used against the United States in the ongoing war.
Ellen, a magician and singer in Gates’ nightclub, is pulled into the plot when a senator asks her to spy on Gates and find the man at the top in the name of national security. When Gates sees Ellen and Raven together on a train, he believes they are working together when their meeting was pure chance.
When Ellen is in danger, her boyfriend Michael is ineffectual, but Raven comes to the rescue. She then becomes his hostage, and they spend a night in an abandoned railroad car. Despite his affection for a stray cat, he strangles it to keep its meowing from giving away their position to the searching cops, and Ellen gets the message—he likes her, but everyone is ultimately expendable to his revenge mission.
Even so, the heat radiates off them both.
She convinces him to put finding the truth about the chemical compound and doing his duty to the country above his revenge, but in the end he gets both, though he dies in the effort.
Ellen goes off to marry her upstanding-but-lackluster boyfriend, but I can’t help thinking she’ll soon tire of darning his socks and cooking his dinner.
An early film noir, and a great film for fans of Lake, Ladd, or Graham Greene.
If you love poor Robert Preston, you’re better off catching him with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in 1939’s Union Pacific.