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Every famous film actor has a lucky break story of when their career shifted from supporting parts to starring roles, and for Alan Ladd the turning point came after his performance as the emotionless killer, Philip Raven, in This Gun For Hire (1942). An adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, Frank Tuttle's film version took some liberties with the original story, changing the setting from England to America. The original theme of revenge and retribution was also given a political slant since This Gun For Hire was made at the height of World War II and, like most Hollywood films of that time, contained anti-fascist propaganda and moments of patriotic activism. But Greene's main narrative about a murder-for-hire scheme that goes awry when the hit man turns on his treacherous employer is virtually intact and Alan Ladd is perfection as Raven, an angel-faced killer without a trace of human compassion. His only acts of kindness are reserved for stray cats and mongrels.
Alan Ladd was a struggling extra in films (you can spot him briefly in Citizen Kane (1941) as a reporter) until he was discovered by actress-turned-talent agent Sue Carol who convinced Paramount Pictures to audition him for the role of Raven in This Gun For Hire. Director Tuttle was looking for a relatively unknown actor to play the homicidal killer despite the fact that he had once considered Robert Preston for the part. Ironically, Preston ended up being cast as the romantic lead, Lieutenant Michael Crane, while Ladd, his blonde hair dyed black for his screen test, clinched the part of Raven after impressing Tuttle and the other Paramount executives with his effectively menacing onscreen persona.
Veronica Lake, Ladd's co-star in This Gun For Hire, was already a major player at Paramount after her success in I Wanted Wings (1941) and I Married a Witch (1942) and physically, she matched up well with Ladd: together they projected an icy magnetism with an undercurrent of sexual tension. The combination proved irresistible to moviegoers; the Lake-Ladd team became Paramount's most popular on-screen couple, and the duo was reunited for The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Saigon (1948). Publicists even tried to suggest there was an off-screen romance brewing between the two but it was only a marketing ploy. Ladd was already in love with Sue Carol (they married later in 1942) and Lake eventually married director Andre de Toth in 1944.
In her autobiography, Lake described her successful partnership with Ladd: "We had less to do with each other than most other acting teams. We'd arrive on the set early each morning. Alan would nod and say, 'Good Morning, Ronnie.'
We'd go to wardrobe and makeup, play our scenes together, and go back to our dressing rooms to take off the makeup and wardrobe.
'Night, Alan, see you tomorrow.'
Alan was a marvelous person in his simplicity. In so many ways we were kindred spirits....And we were both little (in size) people. It was true that in certain films in which his leading lady was on the tallish size, Alan would climb onto a small platform or the girl worked in a slit trench. We had no such problems working together. Both of us were very aloof....It enabled us to work together very easily and without friction or temperament."
But for their first teaming together in This Gun For Hire, it was really Ladd who walked off with the picture. Despite Lake's top billing, the script was reworked during filming to give Ladd a larger role since Paramount executives recognized the young actor's potential. It was a smart gamble and many film critics and historians still feel it is Ladd's best performance, even better than his heroic role as Shane (1953). It would also be the last time Ladd would be cast as a murderer.
This Gun For Hire was later remade in 1957 as Short Cut to Hell by James Cagney in his only attempt at directing. There was even another remake planned with Sammy Davis, Jr. but it never materialized. At any rate, This Gun For Hire is mandatory viewing for any film noir fan and, along with John Boulting's Brighton Rock (1947), is among the finest film adaptations of a Graham Greene novel. Of course, Greene's original screenplays for The Fallen Idol (1947) and The Third Man (1948) rank even higher among film historians.
Director: Frank Tuttle
Screenplay: Graham Greene (novel A Gun for Sale), Albert Maltz, W.R. Burnett
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Cinematography: John Seitz
Costume Design: Edith Head
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Original Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Veronica Lake (Ellen Graham), Robert Preston (Lieut. Michael Crane), Laird Cregar (Willard Gates, Owner Neptune Club), Alan Ladd (Philip Raven), Tully Marshall (Alvin Brewster, President Nitro Chemical Corp.), Marc Lawrence (Tommy), Olin Howlin (Blair Fletcher).
by Jeff Stafford