Film Noir is a term that gets tossed around so casually now that I hardly feel like delving into a description of another 1940s Hollywood crime drama for fear that I'll have to defend it as "noir" or "not noir" or some other similarly grey area in between.
I'm not sure if Paramount's "This Gun For Hire" is a noir, or an existentialist crime drama, but frankly, whatever it is, it's one of the most mold-shattering films of the era that I've seen.
The film is steeped in existential bleakness. It's hard to imagine a film like this coming out in 1942, when the US had just entered World War II and the studios were cranking out patriotic diversions like "This is the Army" and "Stage Door Canteen". Evidently, the film was already in production when the US entered the war, and as a result, there is some of the "do it for your country" type of propaganda found in other darker, subversive films of the period, such as Hitchcock's "Saboteur".
What makes "This Gun for Hire" so totally unsettling is that it looks and feels like a film of its time, with its somewhat flatter lighting and rather ordinary interior sets (lacking the kind of high stylization that directors like Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak and Anthony Mann would bring to the noir picture later in the decade). In this very ordinary environment, however, there is a real nightmarish quality, mainly thanks to the brilliant portrayal of the hired killer, Raven, played by Alan Ladd.
Ladd, like the settings of the film, is disconcerting in that, on the surface, he looks like a handsome, good guy, but I can't think of any other film made before this one in which the protagonist is so thoroughly ruthless and cold-blooded in killing anyone who gets in his way. There are some interesting character touches, too, as when the maid swats away Ladd's beloved cat, and he responds by smacking and generally roughing her up. His portrayal brings to mind the kind of unbalanced, "ticking time bomb" element that Robert DeNiro used so effectively in "Taxi Driver".
The set-up involves the Killer, Raven, getting double-crossed by a client (Laird Creger). Raven has to set out to clear his own name, and gets involved with a girl (Veronica Lake) who can help him clear his name, despite her being engaged to a bland cop (Robert Preston) who's out to bring Raven down. If the plot description sounds simple, be aware that it shatters every previously-held convention of how the "good guy" is supposed to act. We're literally rooting for a ruthless killer who feels no remorse about killing for money, or even mere convenience.
The film lacks the kind of stylistic flourishes that Wilder, Siodmak, Tourneur, Mann, even Huston, brought to their crime dramas. In fact, the film was directed by Frank Tuttle, very much a routine director for Paramount with work going back to the silent era. How much of the film's attitude can be attributed to Tuttle is hard to say, but in any case he did a magnificent job directing the film.
"This Gun for Hire" remains one of the most unflinching, uncompromising and ruthless films of the era right before the golden age of film noir.
I would call "This Gun For Hire", like "The Maltese Falcon", proto-noir. These were, generically, conventional crime thrillers but with a taste of the moral discombobulation that would become the core of the classic post-war noirs. I don't think it was odd that such films began appearing during WWII -- the greatest single catastrophe in human history. People tried to cling to the conventional pieties, but they were coming apart at the seams. The crime thriller was one of the only cultural arenas in which this new moral anxiety could be confronted, albeit obliquely.
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