June 3, 2019
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.
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.