This Gun for Hire

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Drama;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd.

The best of the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake quartet was also the duo’s first teaming, and 1942’s This Gun for Hire came so early in that brainstorm’s six-year run that Ladd was only billed fourth in the ads despite playing the central character. Audiences then rectified this situation in a flash when Gun made Ladd an overnight superstar who quickly became Paramount’s top non-comedic male lead until the early 1950s, though “overnight” is a stretch. Ladd had knocked around in bit parts for an age, and you can even recognize his superb radio voice on the soundtrack Citizen Kane if you’re tipped off going in.

The heights of these two fair-hairs were compatible (Lake was only 4-foot-11 —all of it va-voom-ness until she quickly self-destructed). And the team’s somnambulant acting styles somehow managed to mesh when one might logically assume that the opposite might be true. In this adaptation of a Graham Greene novel with wartime subtext quickly shoehorned in (production apparently wrapped on Dec 8, 1941), Ladd plays a twisted hired killer who got that way due to a sadistic aunt who beat him so badly that he has a deformed wrist to show for it, a first-rate clue for authorities who are trying to track him down. He likes the defenseless (cats and a little girl with braces on her legs) and people who are nice to him if given the chance, though there aren’t many of those. But Lake is.

As a sniveling mid-level lackey to a doddering Mr. Big, the gargantuan character actor Laird Cregar (a personal favorite) hires Ladd to knock off an intermediary in the theft of a McGuffin-ish chemical formula about to be treasonously sold to a foreign power for big bucks. Cregar’s “front” is to be the owner/promoter of a nightclub where Lake and her magic act are hired to perform. The movie is so beautifully put together that despite a wired-tight running time of just 81 minutes, the studio found a way to give singing magician Lake a pair of numbers, without interrupting or jarring the narrative and, in fact, enhancing it.

Cregar, who died at 30 when he looked 50, was another Hollywood casualty who was forced into the closet (a crash diet he launched, which altered his look in swan song Hangover Square, was the catalyst for his death). His demeanor here is certainly gay — yet he’s really convincing as one who looks as if he’d like to make a little of his own magic with Lake. Well, that’s out — as if it would ever happen, anyway — because she has a cop boyfriend played by the young Robert Preston in the kind of thankless role that eventually instigated his bolting from Hollywood until Broadway’s The Music Man gave him a second chance. Thankless or not, Preston is another personal favorite, so we’re looking at quite the potent cast here.

And even though he lacked the same name recognition, this virtue extends to longtime veteran Tully Marshall as the chief heavy and chemical magnate willing to sell out his country. Marshall, who died in real life about a year later, is sociopathically doddering enough here to suggest Sam Jaffe’s High Lama in Lost Horizon but with a pronounced sadistic streak — one that extends to his treatment of subordinates in his employ. The production design for his office is just as memorable, something out of a sci-fi or James Bond movie, though located in downtown Los Angeles.

Ladd and Lake meet by chance on a train and spend much of the movie’s final third together in a railroad yard, which brings up a point. Until the uprise of postwar independent filming, you didn’t see a whole lot of location shooting in L.A. because, for one thing, studios could create the great outdoors (or try to) on their backlots. Gun makes very effective use of some real-deal yards during an escape scheme in which Ladd is holding Lake captive, and like everything else here the sequence is handled with expertise by director Frank Tuttle, a subsequent Ladd favorite to whom the star remained loyal (as he did to the great cinematographer John Seitz). I don’t think there’d be too much debate over Gun being Tuttle’s best picture.

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As they did on the commentary track for Ladd-Lake follow-ups The Blue Dahlia and presumably The Glass Key (which I haven’t listened to yet), historian/biographer Alan Rode and producer/filmmaker Stephen Mitchell make a compatible team discussing Ladd’s insecurities and Lake’s temperamental personality/personal problems, which included alcohol and allegedly even worse on a surprisingly fast track to poverty. Mitchell is a kind of highly instinctive Everyviewer, while Rode can all but quote the results from Tully Marshall’s twilight prostate exams. Rode also brings up Lake’s career-damaging The Hour Before the Dawn, in which she played a Nazi agent in a, shall we say, shaky accent (I’ve always wondered what source novelist Somerset Maugham thought when he saw it).

Though no one mentions it here, the director of Dawn was Frank Tuttle, who not that much later had to deal with the Blacklist. But in this case, all cylinders were firing, and Ladd is unforgettable. I’ve always liked Gun back dating to my early adolescence, but aided by this excellent print, I have to say it’s even better than I thought. As noir-ish melodrama goes, it’s a tough movie to fault on any level.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heiress’ and ‘This Gun for Hire’

The Blue Dahlia

Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay serves as the vehicle for one of the four times Alan Ladd paired on screen with Veronica Lake, this time in a murder mystery set against the backdrop of a postwar Los Angeles housing shortage.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Drama;
$22.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake co-starring in Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay sounds well nigh irresistible on paper, and 1946’s The Blue Dahlia mostly satisfies the concept’s potential as well as intriguing additional considerations that go tangentially beyond sleuthing the murderer of boozy Mrs. Ladd (Doris Dowling). These last include portrayals of the postwar L.A. housing shortage — which is why the future Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) has to shack up with William Bendix here — and also the as yet un-termed PTSD, which is more serious in the latter’s case because he’s also wearing a metal plate in his head, which makes him susceptible to mentally incapacitating migraines.

As the leader of these three vets who all served together, Ladd comes home to discover that Dowling has spent their wartime marriage pouring booze and quite likely sexual favors as well during constant partying in their courtyard apartment while her husband was away being a busy Navy flier. Before long, someone bumps Dowling off, and we sense pretty soon that it may not have been her nightclub proprietor/adulterous squeeze (Howard da Silva) — a not unagreeable type with an understandable sad-sack dimension because he’s squandered the affections of his own wife (Lake — who at this point still had the allure that drove real-life servicemen wild and doesn’t do a bad job of it today). As a result, and as the two leads commence some detecting work in an attempt to exonerate eventual suspect Ladd, it’s a toss-up as to whether they’ll get together romantically. More than not, this is a movie about men, though Dowling does really give it her all in limited screen time.

Of all people, the director here is George Marshall, whose career spanned about 55 years of non-stop work without too many permanent wave-makers to show for it. For posterity’s sake, you do have to give him Destry Rides Again and also the insane cult-heavy farce Murder, He Says — atop, for pure entertainment, not infrequently pleasing vehicles starring the likes of Bob Hope, Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. Plus, lest we forget, the singular Red Garters for your LSD trips. Even so, finding style points in his work over more than a half-century is at least as tough as finding Doris Dowling’s murderer — nor is Marshall’s the face you’d see if you looked up “hard-boiled” in a slang dictionary. At one point, Dahlia Blu-ray commentator Alan Rode (paired with filmmaker Steve Mitchell) concedes that perhaps Marshall didn’t get every last ounce out of this project that a more stylish director might have.

Even so, this is a good time at the movies, and whenever I’d program UCLA’s 35mm print of Dahlia at the AFI Theater many lifetimes ago, we always got good (also enthusiastic) houses. Bendix, Dowling, da Silva and (as da Silva’s crooked partner) Don Costello are all exceptional here, Ladd-Lake chemistry is again palpable, and as the sleazy house detective who snoops on everyone at Dowling’s apartment, the instantly recognizable character actor Will Wright may have had the best role of his career. The picture also has a Paramount luster that always made it my favorite studio when growing up — something very dispiriting to think about when you read the recent New York Times article chronicling the studio’s train-wreck fortunes over, by this time, many years. This said, it looks to me as if — in a cursory run through it — that the Arrow Region ‘B’ edition of Dahlia has a bit more visual snap.

But it doesn’t have Michael Curtiz’s recent biographer Rode, who (with good-foil Mitchell) is personable and in all ways compassionate talking about the personal problems of the two leads — dominated in both situations by alcoholism but, in Ladd’s case, further exacerbated by the added insecurity over his short physical stature that sparked a lot of cruelly stupid jokes. The commentary is also on target enough to note that actor Costello sports a broken toe (which, when it’s pointed out, we can see) after a late-movie fight scene that went awry. Matters obviously weren’t breaking Costello’s way because shortly thereafter, he accidentally killed himself with a pill overdose amid sleeping problems; Dahlia was his last film.

Having worn his miner’s cap into the studio files, Rode also casts a lot of doubt on producer John Houseman’s have-to-be spurious assertions about certain aspects of the shooting that were part of his biographical writings. For his part, co-commentator Mitchell wonders if Chandler’s script was originally intended to veer in another direction, given that Bendix’s character does seem to change marginally late in the game, which further clutters what is both the movie’s penultimate and worst scene (aside from a delicious “Columbo”-like capper at its very conclusion). It’s an Agatha Christie knock-off where all the suspects are gathered in one room and, of all things, we get a target-shooting exhibition right in the police precinct (uh, huh). The movie’s finale, though, is kind of cute, almost anticipating the wrap to Rio Bravo.

Thanks to Shout Select (which has just put out the Ladd-Lake-Bendix The Glass Key), Kino Classics and France’s Elephant Films, a whole bunch of Universal-owned Paramounts are finally hitting Blu-ray near-simultaneously — all from the old MCA package that first sold to TV in the late 1950s and remains the single greatest TV movie package ever. Rode notes that the final of four Ladd-Lake teamings remains very obscure (and going from its rep and my own memory, not very good). But with a title like Saigon, maybe even it will eventually show up in high-def; you can’t say its title lacks a promotional hook.

The Blue Dahlia

Mike’s Picks: ‘Forty Guns’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’