RSS

Category Archives: Veronica Lake

This Gun for Hire

 

Poster

The MacGuffin: a plot device that’s of the utmost importance to the characters in a film, shaping their decisions and driving them on, yet of only marginal interest to the viewer. Hitchcock used the term to refer to various objects and motives in his movies – the uranium in Notorious, the stolen money in Psycho and so on. Of course, it appears in lots of other films apart from Hitchcock’s: the letters of transit in Casablanca for example, and the espionage/blackmail letter in This Gun for Hire (1942). Just as the aforementioned movies have nothing to do with nuclear weapons, loot or visas, except on the most superficial level, neither is This Gun for Hire a spy story. Instead, it’s the tale of a sociopathic contract killer and his gradual transformation into something resembling humanity.

The strong and stylish opening introduces Raven (Alan Ladd), as a solitary and taciturn individual existing on the fringes of society. He lives alone in a beat up boarding house, avoiding human company whenever possible and barely tolerating it when necessary. His casual contempt for a slatternly chambermaid and contrasting affection for a stray cat eloquently points out where his fellow men rank in his estimation. So, if it’s not any empathy with the people around him just what is it that makes Raven tick? If anything, it’s his cool, unemotional professionalism; his whole sense of self is bound up in the way he calmly goes about dispatching those he’s been paid to kill. As he ventures out to fulfill a hit we get a fleeting glimpse of conscience. He unexpectedly runs into a disabled young girl sat alone on a flight of stairs. and pauses briefly. We’re unsure what exactly he’s thinking about this unwelcome witness to his presence, but he passes on. Having done his grisly work on the floor above, Raven again encounters the same girl on his way out. This time she asks him to retrieve a lost toy for her, and for one heart stopping moment it looks like he might just finish the girl off rather than risk identification. Ultimately he doesn’t, leaving her to her lonely games – it’s as though the weak (the cat, the crippled child) stir a feeling of kinship somewhere inside; he has a deformed wrist, the result of a childhood punishment. This suggests that, despite the passive mask he adopts, there is some decency lurking within, and it develops further when he happens to meet a girl on a train. The girl is Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a night club performer who’s travelling with a dual purpose; she’s been recruited as a federal agent in order to dig up some evidence of her new employer’s suspected espionage activities. It’s here that the tale takes on a twisting, complex quality – the girl’s employer is Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), and he also happens to be the go-between who double crossed Raven after his last job. So, both Ellen and Raven are on the trail of the same man, but for different reasons, and with different goals in mind. One wants to expose him, while the other merely wants to kill him.

Veronica Lake & Alan Ladd on their first outing in This Gun for Hire.

The opening credits “introduce” Alan Ladd, but he’d been playing small parts in movies for some time by this point. The nominal lead was Robert Preston, as Ellen’s policeman fiance, but it’s Ladd’s show all the way. In Raven he creates a memorable anti-hero, one who acts as a template for the many hitmen who have graced the screen since, and who fits in as one of Graham Greene’s tormented souls. His set features have a chilling calm to them that impart a real threat far more effectively than a more emotive performance would have done. Everything is contained within the eyes and the voice, the quick spark and slight quaver hinting at the seething emotions which he refuses to allow his expression to betray. The only time he cuts loose is in the railroad yard with Ellen when he recounts the recurring dream of an abusive childhood that haunts him. Veronica Lake, in her first (and possibly best) pairing with Ladd, is fine if unremarkable as the resourceful and faithful Ellen. She wasn’t a great actress by any means, but her work with Ladd in this movie and their subsequent collaborations show her at her best. While Ladd is the dynamo at the heart of the picture, Laird Cregar is also memorable as his squeamish paymaster. Before his untimely death, Cregar was one of those menacing “big men” who seemed to populate so many 40s movies. Unlike the tougher and brasher Sydney Greenstreet, Cregar (and maybe Raymond Burr too) could not only easily convey a threatening presence but also hint at a more vulnerable, weaker side. Director Frank Tuttle isn’t noted for his noir pictures but he captures that elusive spirit on This Gun for Hire. The film may be an early example of noir but it contains many of the characteristic visual motifs, low angles and shadows bisecting the actors’ features in particular. Of course, he’s aided enormously by the photography of John Seitz, and the Graham Greene source novel adapted by W R Burnett. The story benefits greatly from the reduced emphasis on the espionage elements in favour of focusing instead on Raven’s personal quest for vengeance. It’s also refreshing that Raven, even when he does the “right” thing, acts out of what he sees as personal obligation as opposed to falling back on anything as crass or facile as a sudden realization of patriotic duty.

This Gun for Hire was released on DVD years ago by Universal in the US as part of their film noir line. The transfer remains a top notch effort with excellent contrast and clarity. The print has no significant damage or distractions on show. The disc itself is of the very basic variety with no extras whatsoever offered – a pity when you consider the quality of the movie. This is a fine, tightly paced film with a powerful central performance by Alan Ladd and a stylish look. If that’s not enough in itself then it deserves a viewing for being the first teaming of Lake and Ladd, and the influential nature of its characterization. Highly recommended.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1940s, Alan Ladd, Film Noir, Veronica Lake

 

Ramrod

 

Poster

Range wars have always been a favourite backdrop for westerns, men struggling over a piece of land upon which they have built their dreams being an ideal source of conflict. It’s not so common though to see a woman as one of the aggressors, and certainly not one as petite and vulnerable looking as Veronica Lake. However, if there’s a lesson to be learned from Ramrod (1947) it’s surely that one should never be taken in by appearances.

This is a lean, brisk movie where things happen fast and no time is wasted. Within minutes of the opening the main protagonists of the story are introduced and their motivations laid out. Everything revolves around Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake), a headstrong young woman hell bent on establishing herself in her own right and independent of her rancher father. We’re pitched immediately into the middle of a potentially explosive situation where Connie’s betrothed, a sheepman, is about to confront her father and his enforcer, Frank Ivey (Preston Foster). Ivey is the man Connie’s father would like to see her paired off with and he’s not averse to the idea himself. When the the sheepman decides that he values his hide more and thus backs down Connie turns her attention to a drifting cowboy and former drunk, Dave Nash (Joel McCrea). Nash has no interest in involving himself in the Dickason’s affairs at first, but a run-in with the bullying Ivey leads to a change of heart. He decides to sign on with her as her foreman, or ramrod, and face down her father and Ivey. Nash wants to use the law to secure Connie’s rights but she has other ideas on how to go about things. At the heart of the picture are Connie’s machinations, seductively playing the men off against each other to achieve her own ends. All of this deceit inevitably leads to tragedy and the loss of many innocent lives, although Connie blithely dismisses the bloodshed as a necessary if distasteful step on the road to fulfilling her ambitions. It’s only at the end, when her dreams are almost within her grasp, that this scheming puppeteer realises that her self-absorbed ruthlessness has driven away the very thing she desired most.

Joel McCrea in Ramrod.

Joel McCrea’s portrayal of Nash is spot on, his calm and inner strength fitting for a man who has come face to face with personal tragedy and dragged himself back from despair. His honest, straight shooting persona is also ideal for a man who finds himself duped and manipulated by Connie. In fact, every man in the film falls prey to her deceptions at one point or another. Lake was clearly trading on her film noir credentials as she plays what is essentially a femme fatale out west. Her diminutive stature obviously rules out the possibility of her involving herself directly in any of the violence but her awareness of and confidence in her own femininity, and its attendant power, ensures that she calls the shots at almost every point. Director Andre de Toth was married to Lake at this time and he handles not only her scenes but the whole film very well. While he couldn’t be classed as one of the great directors, de Toth was certainly competent and made enough good films to be worthy of more attention. Aside from a number of very enjoyable collaborations with Randolph Scott, he also made the superior Day of the Outlaw and a handful of quality noirs. He was especially good at shooting action and the stalking by night of McCrea’s friend is particularly well done. It’s also worth noting the tough edge he brought to proceedings with a cigar ground into a man’s hand to provoke a gunfight and a savagely brutal beating being some of the highlights. 

While there are plenty of good things to say about Ramrod the film, unfortunately, that not the case with the DVD. The only edition that I’m aware of is the Suevia release from Spain, and it’s pretty poor stuff. The master looks to be taken from an old VHS cassette and all the expected faults are present in the transfer. The image is scratchy, dirty and lacking in definition, and the audio is weak too. Despite that, it remains quite watchable, although there is an especially bad section beginning on the hour mark and continuing for about two minutes. In terms of quality it’s reminiscent of a mid-range PD title. However, as things stand, it’s the only version available – I’m not sure where the rights for this reside but I have a hunch it could be with MGM. On the plus side it can be had for very little money and there are no forced subs on the English track. I think this is a neglected little western with noir undertones that is well worth a look; anything starring McCrea and directed by de Toth deserves that at least. I’d imagine a decent release would go some way towards elevating its status.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1940s, Andre de Toth, Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Westerns

 

The Glass Key

Poster

The Glass Key (1942), from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, is a remake of of a 1935 picture. I have no idea how it compares since I’ve never seen the original, but this later movie does feature the trump card pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in their second outing together. It came out hot on the heels of This Gun for Hire and cemented the screen partnership of the two leads.

Typical of its hardboiled, pulp source, the plot is a twisty and complex one with myriad interlocking strands. At its core, however, is the relationship between political kingmaker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) and his assistant/minder Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd). Madvig is one of those old-school, two-fisted ward bosses who’s made good and risen to a position of considerable influence. Beaumont hails from a similar background, although he displays a good deal more polish than his employer – or at least he’s learned the art of concealing his rough edges a little better. Madvig’s in the process of running a campaign to secure the election of a prominent blue blood, and simultaneously working his socks off to woo the the same gentleman’s daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake) – she’s got the hots for Beaumont though. However, this upper crust family has enough skeletons rattling around in the closet to fill up a good sized cemetery, not the least of which is a wastrel son who’s heavily in debt to the local mob. Now, this young man also happens to have a thing going on with Madvig’s kid sister (getting confused yet?), so when he turns up dead it’s no surprise who the finger of suspicion points to. To make matters worse, Madvig seems either unwilling or unable to do anything to clear himself. So, it falls to Beaumont to try and straighten out the tangled mess and get at the truth. Along the way the film casts a jaundiced eye over the inherently rotten nature of politics and those involved in it. It’s this examination of the filthy underbelly of outwardly respectable institutions and their corrupting influence, rather than the love triangle or the murder mystery, that mark The Glass Key out as film noir. The film also has a brutal edge that lends it a degree of authenticity – the savage and sustained beating handed out to Beaumont by the mob is genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and its aftermath is a tribute to the skill and creativity of the make-up department.

Alan Ladd going the extra mile for a friend in The Glass Key. 

Maybe it’s just my impression, but Alan Ladd never seems to get the respect he deserves as an actor. There was nothing showy about him and it’s possible that his quiet restraint has been mistaken for a lack of ability. For me, it works very well though – especially in a role like that of Ed Beaumont. Ladd displays just the required degree of toughness when necessary and eases comfortably into a more relaxed mode in his scenes with Veronica Lake. It has to be said that Miss Lake was far from being the most expressive of actresses but this actually works to her advantage here. Her less than mobile features add the quality of ambiguity to her character that the script demands, and accentuate the arrogant condescension she feels for Madvig. Brian Donlevy was an excellent choice as the strutting, cocksure politico. He had the kind of natural dynamism that breathes life into the character of Madvig, and he was also capable of tapping into a sense of pathos that allows you to feel real sympathy for him in those moments when we see clearly the tolerant contempt with which he’s viewed by the supposedly respectable Henry family. Nevertheless, as was the case with the later The Blue Dahlia, William Bendix nearly steals the whole picture from beneath the noses of the principals. There’s a disconcerting whiff of the comedic about this menacing mob heavy; a bit like a psychotic teddy bear come to life. He comes across as one seriously sick puppy who positively relishes the hammering he metes out to Ladd and longs for an opportunity to do so again. Stuart Heisler’s direction is competent without ever being especially memorable but he has a good sense of pace and packs a lot of complicated plot into a fairly brisk running time. As with most hardboiled adaptations there’s plenty of snappy dialogue on show, and listening to some of the throwaway lines is half the pleasure. In the midst of pounding Alan Ladd into a nearly unrecognisable pulp, William Bendix and Eddie Marr break off to chow down on some steaks and the latter comments that: “My first wife was a second cook in a third rate joint on Fourth Street.”

The Glass Key came out on R2 DVD in the UK a few years ago from Universal. It’s a fairly typical Universal UK transfer in that it was just slapped on disc as is. There aren’t any major issues with the print save for the fact that it’s pretty grubby. Anyway, it is available and it’s cheap. For some unfathomable reason this film has never been given a release in R1 despite frequent requests from fans and, considering recent developments concerning Universal’s “vault” programme, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen now. The film itself remains a very enjoyable slice of early noir and should probably be regarded as an essential title. It doesn’t match up to that other famous Hammett adaptation, The Maltese Falcon, in terms of style or overall sourness but there’s still much to admire. As an aside, I couldn’t help noticing that the central relationship between Madvig and Beaumont (and their apparent falling out over a woman) bore more than a passing resemblance to that of Tom and Leo in the Coen Brothers’ great gangster/noir Miller’s Crossing.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Alan Ladd, Film Noir, Veronica Lake

 

The Blue Dahlia

Poster 

The Blue Dahlia (1946) was the third film that Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake had made together. While their two previous collaborations had been based on novels (This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene and The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett) this one was from an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Anyone who has read anything by Chandler will know that plot always took second place to dialogue in his writing, and that’s certainly the case with this film. For me, the holes in the plot make this a less satisfactory affair than the earlier Ladd/Lake movies – I can’t comment on their last one Saigon since I have yet to see it.

The story concerns Johnny Morrison (Ladd), a navy veteran, returning from the war in the Pacific theatre. Arriving back in L.A. in the company of two of his former crew (William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont) he goes to meet his wife. Their reunion is not a happy one as his unannounced arrival finds her in the middle of throwing a party. Not only that, but he finds her to be having an affair with the shady owner of a night club, the titular Blue Dahlia. Unsurprisingly, he packs up and leaves. Later, the wife will be discovered shot dead with Johnny’s automatic and the suspicion naturally falls on him. The rest of the movie deals with his efforts to evade capture while trying to run down the real killer. The list of suspects is a long one, with just about every major character having either the motive or opportunity to have done the deed.

Veronica Lake & Alan Ladd

The performances are generally good and Ladd is convincing enough as the tough hero. Lake is not so good playing the estranged wife of the night club owner, although that may have something to do with the allegedly sour relationship between her and Chandler. Still, her screen chemistry with Ladd remains and they share some good scenes. The real standout turn, though, comes from William Bendix as the shell-shocked buddy with a steel plate in his head and a violent aversion to what he refers to as ‘monkey music’. The movie fits nicely into the noir category due largely to the trappings – clubs, cheap hotels and cheaper people, a neon lit L.A. and so on. As I said above, the dialogue was Chandler’s strong suit and helps to paper over the cracks and outrageous coincidences in the plot. The biggest problem of all is the ending. Chandler had originally written a different climax to that seen on screen but was forced to change it as a result of outside pressures. What we are left with doesn’t really work at all, for it makes a nonsense of much of what went before – it just comes across as weak and contrived.

The Blue Dahlia, whatever it’s weaknesses, was a title long desired on DVD by fans of noir, and Universal duly obliged with a release in R2 last year. However, the fact that it has been made available is about the only good thing I can say. The movie has not had any restoration work done and looks quite soft, worse than that is the ghosting which plagues the last half. So, I don’t think this is the best of the Ladd/Lake vehicles but it is stylish and fun – just not all that logical.

 
 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 506 other followers