Directed by Frank Tuttle; Written by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett
Genre touchstones are fun. They can be a comforting shorthand, bowling alley rails that guide you safely towards the experience you want, and we often choose movies of a certain genre expecting these touchpoints. It’s also a lot of fun when movies bounce around inside the guard rails, however, and This Gun for Hire has enough quirks to make up for its at-time stilted mannerisms.
Alan Ladd is introduced to the world as Raven, the eponymous gun for hire who’s paid to kill a scientist and recover some documents, only to be double-crossed by the man who hired him, an oily executive type played by Laird Cregar. Across town, Ellen (Veronica Lake, icy and aloof until the moment her heart melts) a showgirl by trade, is asked by a U.S. Senator to investigate that same executive, as he’s suspected of selling industrial secrets to an Axis power. If that isn’t coincidence enough, the detective tasked with tracking down Raven is none other than Ellen’s future husband. It’s a small world and sure enough, as Raven sets out for revenge, every character on the call sheet will bump heads, rub elbows and go toe-to-toe before everything’s said and done.
The plot’s obviously a real knot and Ellen’s arc is downright insane, and the brevity of This Gun For Hire (clocking in at an expedient 81 minutes) means they don’t even bother to consider just how a showgirl’s fit for espionage of national intrigue. The plot constellations similarly don’t get much love, they’re simply laid down as the tracks upon which the story moves, and move it does! It’s an exercise in pace, dramatical tautness and it’s impressive to watch the machinery of old Hollywood at work, slicing away any superfluous material.
You could therefore also expect This Gun For Hire to be a run-of-the-mill affair, streamlined in lieu of imagination, but no. Ladd’s Raven is first of all an unorthodox figure: on one hand an ice-cold killer, on the other a man who tends to stray kittens and does the bidding of helpless children. An abandoned child himself, the story is set for him to pair up with Lake’s Ellen, but here writers Maltz and Burnett swerve as well (following Graham Greene’s source novel) and avoid the expected romantic dalliance.
Add to that a nefarious industry tycoon without scruples in the guise of Tully Marshall and there’s enough vivid moments to make This Gun For Hire an entertaining watch. The chemistry likewise between Lake and Ladd is more than just compelling, it’s fascinating in how they buck the expected: he a wounded man not afraid of being vulnerable and she a nurturing figure rather than the femme fatale the genre often trots out.
Viewers more keen on modernity still ought to steer clear. This Gun For Hire is still 80 years old, and it doesn’t offer a crystal-clear character study or deeply intriguing narrative to make up for the stylized mannerism of the old studio system. Instead, it’s simply efficient entertainment with noteworthy elements in small acts of subversion and a standout performance from Veronica Lake.