I had never seen an Alan Ladd film except for the Bob Hope comedy My Favorite Brunette (1947), in which he plays a small cameo for laughs. So his-career making role in This Gun For Hire came as something of a shock for me, as it most of for the American film-viewing public in 1942. Although he had been in films for a full decade, he was more or less an unknown when cast as the lead in This Gun For Hire, a hitman who loves cats, likes children, but has little regard for any other form of life, until he meets Veronica Lake, that is. Ladd’s sensational performance created a phenomenon, establishing him as a leading man and also changing the way gangsters were portrayed on the screen, and the tone of the entire genre. His pairing with Veronica Lake was also highly popular, and they costarred in three other films.
Ladd tried to break into films by joining Universal Pictures studio school for actors in his early 20s. Universal found the aspiring actor, who was around 5 feet 5 inches, too short and too blond, and did not offer him a contract. Determined to act, he did work on the radio and as an extra in films. He gradually worked up to a speaking part in Citizen Kane (1941), but, alas, he plays one of the newspaper reporters who are only seen in silhouette. In 1941, he returned to Universal, playing a small in The Black Cat, adopted from a story by Edgar Allan Poe and costarring Bela Lugosi. There was nothing in his career so far to indicate that he could do what he does in This Gun for Hire, playing a harden killer with a flicker of a conscience. Although his character is possessed by a ruthless ferocity, he is also handsome, and commands a slender athleticism. At this time, the prevailing image of killers in gangster films was established by Paul Muni’s portrayal of the title character in Howard Hawks Scarface (1932)—ugly scarred face, flashy clothes and gaudy cars. Ladd’s character, Philip Raven, has no facial scars, but does have a deformed left wrist. But this we learn stems from an earlier case of child abuse. As a boy he innocently reached for a piece of chocolate that his aunt was planning to use to bake a cake, and she hit him with a frying pan, breaking his wrist bone. This story, told when he is being hunted like a dog, only makes him more sympathetic in the eyes of Veronica Lake’s character, and in the eyes of the audience.
The story is about a double-crossed hitman seeking revenge, but the man who betrayed him is working as the middleman for a wealthy, wheelchair-bound industrialist who is selling chemical warfare secrets to the enemy, and so ideals of patriotism come into play. The plot is more sophisticated than a lot of lesser film noir fare, not surprising, as it is based on a novel by Graham Greene.
After establishing Ladd’s character as a ruthless killer, we are introduced to Ellen (Veronica Lake), auditioning for a spot in a theatrical show, singing a pretty corny song while simultaneously doing magic tricks, all while wearing a satin dress so tight you can almost make out her appendix. One of the judges of the audition remarks “she is audience-proof. She makes them bug-eyed.” The other judge is Willard Gates, played by Laird Cregar who comes across as a younger, slightly lighter Sidney Greenstreet, and this is the same man who double crossed Raven, paying him for a hit with a stack of ten dollar bills that he falsely reported stolen to the police. Ellen gets the job and immediately recruited by a senator who suspects that Gates is a fifth columnist, but doesn’t have enough evidence to arrest him. When she travels to LA to appear in the show Gates is producing, she meets the hitman when he tries to steal $5 from her purse while she sleeps. He forces her into helping him, and she becomes moved by his plight. The fugitive couple on the run had been done in films before, notably Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), but This Gun for Hire raises the genre to a new level, making the twin leads more sympathetic than ever before.