Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Summer of Darkness: This Gun For Hire(1942)

All I can say after watching This Gun For Hire is 'wow, that was entirely unexpected.' This film belongs to a genre that, before today, I believed to be a more modern invention; that of the stoic, lonesome, highly professional killer with his own strong code of ethics. Alan Ladd in this film belongs to the same class of criminal as Alain Delon in Le Samourai, Jean Reno in The Professional, or even Ryan Gosling in Drive. Men who do their jobs with a minimum of fuss, speak almost never, and live fastidious, carefully constructed private lives. Made a half decade later, I could see Michael Mann having a field day with this material.

This Gun For Hire takes that archetype and drops him unsuspecting into a plot involving a corrupt millionaire selling poison gas to the Japanese, a nightclub performer hired by a US senator to spy on her boss, and a payroll robbery of thousands in $10 bills. It sounds like a lot to keep track of, but the movie itself flows smoothly from scene to scene. As complex as the plot sounds on paper, it remains easy to understand in execution. Many subplots will disappear from the film for long stretches of time, leading to several thrilling scenes where the various threads meet up suddenly and then drift apart. There are a lot of moving parts, and This Gun For Hire keeps track of them in an admirably clear and concise manner.

The film isn't so much about the various plot machinations, anyway. Most of them turn out to be McGuffins, anyway, existing primarily to put the plot in motion and make sure various characters are in the right place at the right time. Instead, the film is more about the strains both mental and physical that the jobs of subterfuge and murder place on people. The characters in This Gun For Hire are all compromised and damaged, more by the lies they are forced to tell than by the bullets that frequently fly by. Veronica Lake risks her life and, more importantly, her love by what she has to do in the name of national security. Alan Ladd gives a speech late in the film that explains how a man could kill people for a living, but it's an unnecessary scene. The speech exists primarily for Verona Lake's benefit, to give her a reason to sympathize with the man. We the audience could tell by his actions, his closed off, suspicious, hostile-yet-sorrowful demeanor that someone got to him and hurt him at a very young age.

This Gun For Hire is not really a noir film, at least not in the way we normally think of the genre. It's more like a spy film seen through a noir-ish filter. There are plenty of signifiers held in common with noir. It's no coincidence that many scenes, including a long, defining standoff where Ladd tells Lake his story, is set within a train yard. Those tracks pop up again and again in noir films, always offering the illusion of escape while providing nothing but a preordained trip to your final destination. As Ladd determinedly seeks for revenge on his employer, he finds himself barrelling towards a familiar nihilistic end.

1 comment:

Rik Tod Johnson said...

When I was a teenager, I saw this film for the first time and fell smack in love with Veronica Lake (and had a bit of a crush -- though I never would have admitted it at the time -- on Alan Ladd). Sullivan's Travels would solidify my Lake obsession. This is my go-to noir, even if there are far better ones... I cannot live without this one. A personal cult fave.