This Gun for Hire
is a 1942 film starring Robert Preston, Veronica Lake, and Alan Ladd. Ladd is Raven, a San Francisco hitman with a soft spot for cats, who kills a blackmailer named Baker. Raven retrieves a stolen chemical formula from Baker and brings it to his employer, Willard Gates (Laird Creegar). Gates then double-crosses Raven by reporting the money he gave Raven for the job as stolen from the bankroll of his company, Nitro Chemical. Raven goes on the run from the police, led by visiting LAPD detective Michael Crane (Preston).
Meanwhile, Crane's girlfriend, stage singer and magician Ellen Graham (Lake), is enlisted by the feds to get info about Nitro Chemical by auditioning for Gates, who also owns some nightclubs. The government believes that Nitro Chemical is selling chemical weapons to the Japanese. Ellen takes the train to Los Angeles to start her job at Gates's club and spy on Nitro—and winds up in a seat next to Raven, the fugitive.This Gun for Hire made a star out of Alan Ladd
, who had been working as a bit player and in small parts for years (he's one of the reporters in Citizen Kane
. He and Lake were a successful screen couple due in part to their chemistry and also because they were both short—five foot zero Lake matched up better with 5'6" Ladd than other actresses did. Lake and Ladd would go on to make four film noirs together.
This work exhibits the following tropes:
- Anti-Hero: The protagonist is a hitman who kills two innocent people.
- Blackmail: Baker tries this with Nitro Chemical. It was a bad idea.
- The Chanteuse: With a twist, as Ellen's nightclub act combines singing with magic tricks.
- Dressing as the Enemy: Helpfully, Nitro Chemical is conducting a gas attack drill when Raven gets there. Raven attacks Gates' man Tommy, and takes his uniform and gas mask. This allows him to get to Gates.
- Empathic Environment: There is a well-timed clap of thunder after Gates catches Ellen in a lie and confronts her about Raven.
- Establishing Character Moment: Raven receives a note giving a man's location. He pulls out a gun and puts in in his bag, establishing him as a tough guy. Then he opens the window of his room and gives a saucer of milk to a stray cat.
- Evil Cripple: Alvin Brewster, the president of Nitro Chemical, who is very old, wheelchair-bound, and unable to speak above a whisper. He is also the Big Bad who's been sending weapons and intelligence to the Japanese, and he tries to kill Raven.
- Film Noir: Murder, betrayal, a sexy chanteuse—sure.
- He's Dead, Jim: Brewster's aide checks him for about five seconds and doesn't even look for a pulse before declaring him dead.
- Hidden Depths: Raven the hard-bitten hitman has a fondness for cats. Later, he tells Ellen how he got his misshapen wrist—when he was a teenager his abusive aunt smashed it with a red-hot iron.
- Professional Killer: Duh, "this gun for hire." Raven is in fact a pretty bad guy—he kills an innocent woman in the opening scene to cover his tracks, he kills a policeman to escape, and he was about to kill Ellen when he was interrupted.
- Redemption Equals Death: Instead of just killing Gates and Brewster, Raven does as Ellen asked him and gets them to sign confessions. This comes at the cost of his own life.
- Scaramanga Special: Brewster has a pen which also functions as a gun. He tries to shoot Raven but misses.
- Sissy Villain: Gates is effiminate and persnickety, and quails at Tommy's description of how he's going to kill Ellen.
- Stockholm Syndrome: Ellen is awfully willing to help a murderer who has been dragging her around Los Angeles at gunpoint. Of course, he did rescue her from Gates's mansion.
- Trail of Bread Crumbs: Ellen the stage magician drops cards from her deck to help the cops find her, after Raven drags her away.
- Train-Station Goodbye: The usual, with Michael following along after Ellen's train as it pulls away.