This Gun for Hire (1942) Directed by Frank Tuttle. Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar (81 min).
A baby faced killer with a soft spot for fluffy kittens crosses paths with a petite prestidigitator, a peppermint nibbling fat man and a cranky cookie dunker. Lake’s iconic peek a boo hairstyle and Ladd’s sang froid riveted a wartime movie going nation in this Graham Greene penned thriller. Universal Archive Print.
Graham Greene was a novelist, screenwriter and film critic who wrote many stories and novels that were adapted for the screen, including Brighton Rock, The Fallen Idol, The Ministry of Fear, The Quiet American, and perhaps, the best known, The Third Man. Almost all of his 25 novels and many of his short stories were filmed, some more than once. His first novel was published in 1929, and he supplemented his fiction income by free-lance journalism. His reviews in The Spectator set a high standard for film criticism at a time when it was regarded as a trivial pursuit, although his speculation on the effect of Shirley Temple pre-pubescent sexuality on middle aged men in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie resulted in a lawsuit which still prohibits this essay from being published today. He was attracted to political themes, and countries in crisis. This Gun For Hire, called A Gun for Sale in the UK was written in 1936 and set in England. It is about a political assassination which almost triggers World War II. Greene’s popular fiction added layers of moral ambiguity with a literary skill not often found in genre writing. He is concerned not just with the main plot and characters, but in depicting minor figures which contributes greatly to the atmosphere, both in his novel and in the classic Hollywood studio film. I can tell you the novel is a page turner, and quite upsetting, when it appears a certain sympathetic character has been murdered. Greene’s writing, and the films adapted from his work were central to the development of film noir styles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today, so many crime films and tv shows include a hit man, but a soulless killer for hire was a radical character in the 1940s. Raven in the novel is psychotically unpredictable. Like the protagonist of Brighton Rock, a physical scar (Raven has a hare lip) is a symbol of his inner corruption. “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job” begins the novel. Because a movie protagonist with such a disfigurement was unacceptable to 40s audiences, in the movie Raven has a deformed wrist. Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, which I tried to book for this series, is a direct homage to This Gun for Hire.
This 1940s scrapbooker cut and pasted a number of images from the film from (?) Life Magazine.
Paramount bought A Gun for Sale for $12,000 in 1941. Since WW II had actually begun by the time of filming, the action was relocated to wartime California, and theme of espionage shifted to the motives of a county at war. The Production Code approved the script because of this topical patriotism, even though Greene didn’t care that his heroine, his shabby but plucky chorus girl was turned into “a female conjurer working for the FBI” (Biesen 50). Paramount submitted the film to the Production Code with two flat-out patriotic films as camouflage, and the strategy worked, to a degree. They were cautioned to cut indecent displays of nudity, homosexuality, and juvenile delinquency (no teens playing pinball). Don’t disrespect authority figures, and no implications of illicit sex. And, there was way too much violence. Yes! It’s a movie about a hit man! Principal photography was finished on December 6, 1941, one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Part of the reason that it passed the censorship requirements was because the film’s depiction of the use of any means necessary for the war effort. Besides, war-time conservation prohibited any retakes, and scrubbed a dream sequence that would have delineated Raven’s twisted psyche.
The actual war effort affected filming in Hollywood. Many of the characteristics of film noir, rain, fog, smoke, reflections, shadows and darkness were the result of wartime material restrictions which affected Hollywood like everywhere else. Paramount art director Hans Dreier, a veteran of the German studios that had pioneered the expressionist style that so influenced film noir, collaborated with photographer John Seitz on the distinctive look of the film.
The leading actors were not big stars—yet—but they would be after the film was released. Ladd was paid $4,216, less than Lake ($6,900) and Robert Preston ($6,500). Shot for $500,000, the film would gross $12 million. The script was by W. R Burnett, author of Little Caesar, and Albert Maltz, who would later be blacklisted. The picture was a smash hit. The New York Times raved, “not since Jimmy Cagney massaged Mae Clark’s face with a grapefruit has a grim desperado gunned his way into cinema ranks with such violence as does Mr. Ladd in this fast and exciting melodrama” (Roman 203).
Alan Ladd was born in Hot Springs Arkansas. His father died when he was four, and after his mother remarried, the family moved to Hollywood. Alan excelled at high school swimming and diving; in 1932 he was West Coast diving champion. He also became enamored of high school dramatics. He was dropped from an early contract at Universal because he was too short, and found work on the radio. Ladd had been knocking around Hollywood for years without much success; he may have had bits in as many as 150 films; his most famous, as one of the faceless reporters in Citizen Kane. Sue Carol, a former silent film actress, had become his agent and lover (although they were both married). He was blond, and only 5’ 6” in the era of “tall dark and handsome.” Lake, too, was quite short, not quite 5 feet tall, and with her blonde hair they made a dazzling pair on screen. They became a romantic staple of 40s films, in The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia. The posters paired Ladd and Lake, in spite of the fact that it is Robert Preston who is the romantic lead. Ladd played Gatsby in the 1949 version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and was the taciturn gunfighter in the 1953 movie Shane. He died at the age of 50 from an overdose of sedatives and alcohol, and in spite of an earlier suicide attempt, the death was ruled accidental.
Many unknowns were tested for the role of Raven. One was a newcomer at the Long Beach Community Theater. “After 13 auditions, he was assured that he had the role, although one more candidate remained to be tested. That night, the actor celebrated with a champagne party for his friends. The next morning, he reported to the studio. “While I was waiting for the producer in his office, I happened to glance over at the desk. There I saw a slip of paper and a penciled line crossed through my name. Underneath was written another name—Alan Ladd.” That actor, DeForest Kelly, would wait 25 more long years for his big break, and still gave a bitter interview to TV Guide, even in midst of his career high point. Of course, in 1968 he could not possibly see into the future, that his pop culture fame as Dr. McCoy on Star Trek would eventually eclipse that of Alan Ladd (TV Guide p. 23).
Sue Carol had one of the cutest haircuts in silent films. Here is a fan magazine photo from the late 1920s.
After Ladd was cast, he worked hard at perfecting the “Raven Look” to look icy and cruel, yet not completely alienate the audience (Linet 57). After the first day’s shooting, director Frank Tuttle decided to refocus the film on Raven, back burnering the conventional romantic subplot. He spent extra time on little character touches, close-ups, and particularly the fascinating introductory sequence, where Raven bonds with a kitten (taken from the book). “This was a star buildup. No young actor could ask for more. But still, Alan would have to deliver” (Linet 61). Lake, top billed, became irritated at all the time lavished on Ladd. She said of Tuttle later, he was “a jerk who never considered me anything more than a sex-zombie whose only purpose in a movie was to cause mass masturbation and heavy breathing in darkened theaters” (Lenberg 98).
Ladd and his wife, Sue Carol.
Veronica Lake was born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn in either 1919 or 1922. Her father worked on an oil company rig, where he died in an explosion when she was around 12. She made her film debut as Constance Keane in 1939, but it was not until she changed her name (a Paramount producer chose it to refer to her blue eyes) and adopted the sultry “peek a boo” hairstyle that she became a star. During WW II she was asked to change her hairdo, because so many women working in defense plants got their long hair caught in the machinery. Because new clothes were in short supply, women changed their make-up and hair styles instead of buying new dresses. At the height of her stardom, she was courted by both Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis, but her career barely outlived the 1940s. She was reputed to be difficult to work with. After Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrea supposedly refused to work with her saying, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake” (Osbourne). Troubled by mental illness and alcoholism, she died in 1973 only 50 or 53.
The Most Talked About Girl of the Month
Wally Westmore, supervisor of Paramount’s hair and makeup departments devised her famous hairstyle, Lake preferred to keep her hair hidden under a beret. After Westmore parted it on the side to fall seductively over one eye, the studio’s head costume designer, Edith Head, was then tasked with coming up with a style sexy enough to match the hairstyle. Head had already struggled to conceal Lake’s pregnancy in Sullivan’s Travels. She told her biographer, “Her figure problems seemed insurmountable. She was short, like me, and very tiny—possibly the smallest normal adult I had ever seen. Her waist was the smallest in Hollywood, 20 ¾”. That was 5 1/2” smaller than the average waist. Far from a designer’s dream, like Dietrich or Lombard. Yet, everyone was telling me to make her into a sex symbol. She had a good bust, but I couldn’t show it because of the Hays Office anti-cleavage rules. I was forced to be extremely careful in every costume she wore” (Head and Calistro 53).
Jan Grippo, a professional magician was brought in to teach Lake basic slight-of-hand. She was so good at it that he briefly considered forming a magic act with her, but her other professional commitments interfered. Robert Preston gave her a first screen kiss, and they made the most of it, joking about their passionate clinch. But, the critics swooned instead over “the icy magnetism between Veronica and Ladd” (Lemberg 103).
In her autobiography, Veronica, Lake wrote: “Naturally, the public linked us romantically, but neither of us cared about what the public conjured up. And we were just as indifferent to the studio’s sly attempts to spread romantic rumors. It was all part of the game in enticing the public into the theater and the Ladd-Lake billing proved to be a powerful lure. In so many ways we were kindred spirits. We were both professionally conceived through Hollywood’s search for box office and the types to insure that box office. Both of us were also very aloof…we were a good match for another. It enabled us to work together very easily without friction or temperaments” (Lenberg 96). She starred in four box office hits in 1942. This Gun for Hire, Sullivan’s Travels for Preston Sturges, The Glass Key and I Married a Witch, a fun film that was the inspiration for the tv show Bewitched.
“The casting of Ladd as the professional killer in This Gun For Hire was masterful showmanship, for it coupled sensitivity and cold blooded ruthlessness, a combination few women can resist. Women all over the world, literally by the millions, imagined themselves protecting his sensitivity and re-directing his ruthlessness” (Roman 199).
The ads read, “Killer without a conscience! Lover without a heart? Kiss her or kill her! Which will he do?” (Biesen 56)
Sources include: This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir by Sheri Chinen Biesen, Peekaboo: The Story of Veronica Lake by Jeff Lenburg, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies, October 6, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veronica_Lake, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Ladd Alan Ladd by Robert C. Roman in the April 1964 Films in Review, Edith Head’s Hollywood by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, Edith Head by Jay Jorgensen, Ladd: The Life, The Legend, The Legacy of Alan Ladd by Beverly Linet, “Where is the Welcome Mat?” August 24, 1968 TV Guide. All photos are from moviediva's collection of movie star scrapbooks, except for the publicity still with the gun (doctormacro.com) and the one with the bird (from Jorgensen).