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.
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.