Being that two later Ladd & Lake team-ups, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia, are among my favorite mystery films, I'm amazed it took me so long to get around to this one. The main attraction of the others, of course, were the Hammett and Chandler connections, but I enjoyed the performances - and interaction - of these two, too.
So now I've seen it. I can't call This Gun for Hire (1942) a great film, because the plot relies on some credulity-stretching coincidences. But I don't really care, because I can call it great entertainment. It was just plain fun to watch.
On the poster above, Veronica got top billing, while Ladd came in fourth. The film's opening credits say "Introducing Alan Ladd," implying he just fell off the turnip truck and found himself in Hollywood. Actually, he'd already spent ten years in the business and appeared in over forty films. But many of those earlier roles were uncredited, and others of little consequence. This Gun for Hire was his big break, and he took advantage of it in a big way.
Ladd's performance as the cold-blooded contract killer "Raven" is both chilling and convincing. And surprisingly, as Lake gets under his skin and puts him on a path toward redemption, that's convincing too. Unlike earlier movie sociopaths, Raven has no grudge against society, he's simply a child who got older and taller without anyone giving a damn about him.
Another great thing about this film is that it showed me a new side of Veronica Lake. Sure, she was slinky and alluring in The Blue Dahlia and The Glass Key, but in this one she also gets to lip-sync a song and have a little fun. Check her out as a singing magician in the video clip above.
The two lobby cards below (both staged scenes, not in the film) provide a fair idea of the story's driving forces. In the first, Ladd wants to kill Laird Cregar, a suspected traitor who hired him for a killing, then framed him for a robbery. Lake wants to restrain him, because she's an amateur federal agent who wants evidence against Cregar's boss.
The next card represents the other side of the plot. Lake and police detective Robert Preston are hot to get married, and Ladd makes things difficult by taking Lake as a temporary hostage.
When the film was rereleased three years later, Ladd had become a star, and was billed even above Veronica Lake. Posters and lobby cards like those below hint at a romance between the two, but moviegoers seeking heat were likely disappointed.
The smooch above is strictly sisterly, and relationship that builds between the two is simply friendship. What makes it so powerful is that Lake is the first friend Ladd-Raven has ever had.
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