Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake made quite a formidable pairing in the ’40s. They were put together partly due to the fact Lake was one of the only actresses in Hollywood shorter than Ladd, who was a tiny 5 foot 6 inches for a leading man while Lake was 4 ft 11 in. This Gun For Hire was the first of four films they made together, and perhaps their best. They did This Gun For Hire and The Glass Key back to back, and would reunite for The Black Dahlia and the little-seen Saigon. Lake was already a star, having just done Sullivan’s Travels.
The film was based on by a Graham Greene novel, which in the UK was known as A Gun for Sale. It had been optioned straight away in 1936, and there was an almost immediate effort to try to make it. The original version would have featured Ray Milland and Ida Lupino, but it didn’t happen for five years. Eventually director Frank Tuttle was attached, and this is probably his best-known film. He worked with Ladd and Lake separately on later films. He had actually made a version of The Glass Key in 1935, before it was remade as the second Ladd-Lake film.
The film itself is a really quick-paced, early noir (some argue that it is a proto-noir). The Maltese Falcon arrived in 1941 and makes a good starting point, but there are also some late ‘30s American Fritz Lang movies and The Petrified Forest, so that debate goes on. Ladd plays hitman Philip Raven. He bumps off a person who has been blackmailing him and his female companion, but gets paid off in these marked bills that he can’t really do anything with. Raven is double-crossed by his employer, who is working with foreign spies (this is the wartime era). Lake is a nightclub singer who has been hired by the same guy, who runs an L.A. nightclub. They meet on a train and eventually they team up to some extent, and Raven is out for revenge. Lake’s boyfriend is a police detective called Michael Crane, but although the actor who plays him, Robert Preston, has second billing on the film, his role in the story isn’t very memorable.
It’s a good noir with a slight espionage aspect to it. The reason it’s as good as it is, is that Raven is a prototype for the lonely hitman character who became a staple of film noir and neo-noir. He is this mysterious cat-loving hitman, a very unique depiction of such a character. Alan Ladd became a star after this film—previously he had a lot of bit parts but people didn’t know what to do with him because he was so short. He had a scene at the end of Citizen Kane, for example, and had worked at a grip at Warner Brothers for awhile as well. Lake is great here, and has obvious chemistry with Ladd. It was so evident that they were cast in The Glass Key before This Gun for Hire even came out.
All in all, it’s a not-too-fussy noir that isn’t as popular as The Blue Dahlia, another film they did together. It has some good photography from John F. Seitz, who would go on to film Sunset Boulevard and the noir version of The Great Gatsby, featuring Ladd in the Gatsby role.
The disc includes commentary and two different radio adaptations. Both feature Ladd, but the female lead for Lux Radio Theatre is Joan Blondell whilst The Screen Guild Theater version stars Lake. The theatrical trailer and a booklet with new writing on the film from Barry Forshaw and Craig Ian Mann round off the release.