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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

This Gun For Hire (1942)


Starring: Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Alan Ladd, Laird Cregar and Yvonne De Carlo
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 14 September 2020

This is a classic. No better way to put it. Noir at its finest and foremost. Black and white cinematography by the immortal John F. Seitz, direction under the sure hand of the nearly forgotten (except to worthy cognoscenti of the art) Frank Tuttle, production value from Paramount Studios exemplar of polish. This Eureka edition, drawing from a 4K scan of original studio elements, is a delight for those who know what to expect and a great intro for those who want a flight through the night of American wartime gangster crime, catapulted by espionage in dirty weapons. The prescience of the latter element is all the more striking when one knows cameras were still rolling when World War II began. That prescience belongs to Graham Green’s novel and screen writers Albert Maltz and W. R. Burnett. It is also Alan Ladd’s breakout picture and a synthesis of noir romantic bonding with Lake which was to link up both actors again (The Glass Key, 1942) contracted before their wrap.

Ladd is hitman, Philip Raven, bloodless without remorse. Except herein he finds a conscience and patriotism he didn’t realise existed in his veins. Ladd had struggled to get noticed. He is one of the smoke shrouded reporters watching the obit newsreel in Citizen Kane (1941) and is briefly recognizable in the cavernous Xanadu treasure trove warehouse at the end. He is fourth billing here. Paramount knew they had a good bet but how to work Ladd onto the track? Best answer, pair him with sultry Lake, dependable Robert Preston (whose career proved more durable than anyone else’s), menacing Laird Cregar who combined hulking promise of hurt even as he breakfasts in his three piece complete with lapel boutonniere, daintily dismantling his grapefruit while Ladd, who’s been busy during the night, repasts with coffee, still in his trench coat. Cregar was a rare breed of talent lost far too soon. The contrast they share at breakfast is as interesting as Ladd’s with Lake. Those who like sexual innuendo in all dynamics can have a field day. Same sex or homo-erotic attraction wasn’t even verbalised in those days but here it is anyway. Ladd’s sexual embers burn hot under the dark surface. To see his gun is as fatal as the lead that will shortly cleave the body.

Lake’s allure as a nightclub chanteuse brought in to sing at Cregar’s nightclub is adorned in Edith Head shiny fabrics melded to her form. The hair, the peekaboo blonde tresses are timeless, a goddess in an environment of concrete crime.

Ladd is awakened in his street clothes in his low budget room. Somewhere in a barroom down below, someone’s pounding a cheap upright piano. There is a message, an envelope with the address of somebody named Albert Baker, paperclipped on the outside is a little typewritten rectangular scrap: “At home alone - between three and four p.m.” Ladd, still sitting on the bed, checks his automatic, feeds a cartridge into the chamber and puts the gun in a nondescript little attaché case. The look on his face is without affect but not completely. There is a trace of satisfaction of being in the traces. He neatens his necktie, stands and dons his suit coat. The apartment can only be described as shitty. Hat on, he’s ready to go but a young cat is meowing on the ledge outside the window. He turns back, lets it in and gives it canned milk it knows is coming. The smile as he goes to wash his hands is personal and private. The cleaning girl comes in and whacks the cat to chase it away. He grabs her. She tells him to take his dirty hands off her. He back hands her with the quickness of a rattlesnake striking. She leaves. He bends down to the floor assuring himself that the cat is continuing its meal. Trench coat over his arm, he heads out. To work.

At another scummy apartment he’s witnessed going up the steps by a benign little girl in polio leg braces. A double take moment. He goes upstairs to the apartment. Immortal character veteran dog face Frank Ferguson lets him in. He wants the money agreed on. This missive, he smiles, would have been in Washington, D.C. by evening.

Ladd reaches into his attaché case. Ferguson’s eyes gleam like a rat’s, until he sees the gun. Blast. He’s launching into a venerable career where he’s in a movie just long enough to die. He will do this probably more than a hundred times. His floozie companion bursts from her own clean up tasks in the bathroom. “He was supposed to be alone,” says Raven, without a hint of emotion. She squeals and runs into the bathroom, bracing the door. Raven mentally x-rays where she’s standing and fires twice through the flimsy wood. The sound of her crumpling comes through. He shoves open the door now blocked by her dead body.

He checks the packet of documents. Cover letter to a Senator, accompanying a sheath of laboratory procedures for producing a highly toxic and volatile gas formula. War gas.

On the way down the stairs the little girl calls to him. He instinctively opens his attaché case. She tells him she dropped her ball. He flips the case shut and gets her ball for her. She thanks him. He goes. We’ve seen the edge, the line and it is ephemeral.

On to breakfast. The murders are in the morning papers. Laird Cregar compliments his work. And a waitress’s hands, squeezing a bit too long and too tight: “Ahh, lovely, dainty but sculptured.”

Complications abound. Preston’s government agent is in love with Lake. Lake gets a job in Cregar’s club. Raven is trailed to his door. He slips away with a show of improvisation and guts. When Ladd and Lake inevitably meet, he mints the immortal line, “You talkin’ to me?” Another height challenged actor also used that line to great effect. When you rob, rob big.

Extras are Eureka class: audio commentary by noir expert Adrian Martin; two radio adaptations of the play; stills gallery, worthy of lifting and hanging; promotional ephemera and the trailer. Put this movie late at night, get comfortable and by all means see it on a pixel-worthy screen.


John Huff

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