by Jay Seaver
I can get kind of touchy about genre classifications, which is odd since I like to tell people I don't really believe in them. Still, if you're going to use them, use them right. This Gun for Hire showed up in a noir series, but it feels more like pulp to me. It's not the bone-crunching Mickey Spillane sort of pulp, but it's a little more fanciful than most noir.Early on, we meet Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), a hitman who, being a movie hitman, has a lovable eccentricity. Raven likes cats, and feeds the strays who wander into his hotel room window. He executes the job he's hired for, but the man who hired him, Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) pays him with money he has reported stolen, going straight to Michael Crane (Robert Preston), a Los Angeles Detective visiting San Francisco. Crane is there to see his girlfriend, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a nightclub entertainer whose act contains some singing, some dancing, and some stage magic. Ah, but it's about to get more complicated - Gates has just hired Ellen for his club in L.A., and the Feds would like her to snoop around. And who should she sit next to on her way down, but a certain killer looking to settle accounts with the man who paid him worthless money.
"A B+ movie, to give it a fair grade."
There's a lot of plot crammed into eighty minutes of B-movie. Obviously, something's going to have to give, and that's anything resembling subtle characterization. Preston is something of a non-factor, really, kind of smiling competently as he hangs around the outskirts of the plot. Ladd plays his part with a sort of grim efficiency, ruthless enough that he's obviously good at what he does, but holds back enough with Ellen and around kids that you know that even if he's a bad guy, he's obviously not the worst guy. That designation goes to Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall), the defense contractor willing to sell out his country for a quick buck. Marshall is hilariously over-the-top, the type of villain who calls the rest of the cast weak and pathetic from his wheelchair. Cregar is all self-important bluster.
Then, of course, there's Veronica Lake, who does her movie star thing. She gets to sing and dance, be confident, and is involved in most of the action scenes. It's a little disappointing to see that some of her "magic" is accomplished with camera and editing tricks, of course. But, she does everything you'd want your leading lady to do in an adventure. She was not a great actress, but blessed with good looks and charisma, and this was a part that required charm more than talent.
It's a fun story, though, with cliffhangers and gunplay and hostage situations. The middle section is especially fun, as Ellen and Raven both arrive at Gates's house looking for information, and collide in ways perhaps more suited to screwball comedy than a crime drama. That's not to say the life-threatening situations are funny; more that they're structured like a comedy from this period, with the audience having to keep track of where four or five different people who don't necessarily want to run into each other are at any given moment.
Director Frank Tuttle does a fine job of keeping things moving. He was a studio workhorse for Paramount, sometimes cranking out three or four movies per year. The result is rather like above-average television, from a aesthetic sense - it does the job, and is indeed often quite entertaining, but it doesn't really show an artist's hand - it was the job of the people involved to tell a story quickly and clearly, on a budget and a deadline. That's a valuable skill, and while it doesn't often produce memorable or important works, when everything is done as well as it is here, it produces some quality entertainment.This Gun for Hire would be dismissed as filler "product" today, and probably was in 1942, as well. But it's good filler, solid genre work that will entertain its audience during its running time and satisfied after.
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originally posted: 05/08/05 23:52:10