This Gun For Hire. Talk about getting right to the point. In the best of film noir, I’ve chosen a great piece of noir that many see as a one of the most important early works in the genre. This Gun For Hire uses many of the conventions of later film noir, and the central part of the story, the last days of the lone assassin, was copied in later films, primarily Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (France, 1968), Luc Besson’s The Professional (USA, 1994) and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (USA, 1999). This Gun For Hire also has what we’ve come to expect from film noir: double-crosses, revenge, the noir hero, and the femme fatale.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
Alan Ladd stars as Philip Raven, a contract killer who is unstable and truly reprehensible. Raven is dark, brooding, and mysterious. It is interesting to note that Ladd had many roles before his turn as Raven, but it was this role that turned him into a star, probably because director Frank Tuttle let Ladd show off his talent. Although Raven is cold-hearted and ruthless, we also see a tender side in his love of cats (yes, cats), although this kindness is not extended to people. He is also patriotic and in the film we see that Raven isn’t the real bad guy (even though he’s killing all these people). This would explain why we end up feeling such sympathy for a hardened criminal, and why we call Raven a noir hero. Ladd’s Raven is a fantastic, nuanced performance, no doubt.
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Veronica Lake received top billing in This Gun For Hire, as her star was on the rise due to her performances in I Wanted Wings and Sullivan’s Travels, and Ladd was lesser known. Lake plays Ellen Graham, a singer, dancer, and magician (an interesting feature to her character). Calling Graham a femme fatale may be a bit of a stretch because Graham is, in essence, trying to do good. But she is sultry and sexy, and she uses her feminine wiles on Raven. Circumstances throw Raven and her together, and she ends up his accomplice and friend (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but let’s just say Graham wears many shoes). She also betrays the men in her life, all for the good of her country. Many have criticized her performance, but as time has gone on, it appears that the issue is more with the script’s heavy-handed patriotism (this was 1942, the height of the United States involvement in World War II) than her performance.
The Best of Film Noir – The Script
This Gun For Hire is based on renowned British novelist Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale (1936). In the novel, Raven is a London hitman, a screwed-up man with a screwed-up, disfigured lip. In Greene’s novel Raven is hired to kill a British diplomat who is vying for peace in Europe. However, the businessmen who hire Raven will make a fortune if Britain goes to war. Scriptwriters Albert Matz and W.R. Burnett adapted the novel to fit American audiences, so the story takes place in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Best of Film Noir – The Novel
What is so interesting about the novel A Gun For Sale is how effectively Greene created the character of Raven. Even though Raven is a cold-blooded killer, we see that he is this way because of his environment. He is the product of a destitute, cruel upbringing and the cruelty of the British class system of the time. Because of this, and how truly great the writing is, we as the readers can sympathize with Raven, even though he is a killer. A Gun For Sale may not be Greene’s best, but it is worth the read, especially if you write thrillers or mysteries, or if you want to study great characterization.
There may be more classic examples of film noir, but This Gun For Hire still ranks right up there with the best. So grab your popcorn and your sweets and settle in for some great film noir fun.
If you enjoy film noir, you may like my Reed Ferguson mystery series. Reed is a wannabe private eye who loves film noir and crime fiction, and these mystery novels are consistently well-reviewed: This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat.
5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor