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Graham Greene's novel was originally published in England as A Gun for Sale, but the title was changed to This Gun for Hire for American publication. Sound recorder Philip Wisdom's first name was spelled "Phillip" in the opening credits. Material in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals the following information: The studio intended to produce the film as early as May 1936, shortly after Greene's novel was purchased for $12,000 in London. The story was also known as "Guns for Sale." Producer A. M. Botsford assigned Dore Schary to write the script and was considering Peter Lorre to play the role of "Raven." Two directors, E. A. Dupont and Robert Florey, were interested in the project, but because of production delays, Florey would not commit to the project. Botsford then began to have second thoughts about casting Lorre, who he felt might deliver a "one-key performance." In August 1936, Maurice Geraghty was signed to work on a script with Jack Moffitt, and Botsford considered James Hogan for director. By October 1936, two other writers, Thomas Monroe and Robert Wyler, contributed continuities and scripts, but when costs for producing the film appeared to be prohibitive, Botsford abandoned the project and soon after left Paramount.
The project was taken up again in 1939 and 1940, and for a time, Paramount London considered making the film in Great Britain. Correspondence in the file reveals that in April 1940, actor Anthony Quinn and writer Lester Koenig worked on a version of the script, which apparently was rejected. Finally in June 1941, Albert Maltz, who wrote the final screenplay with W. R. Burnett, began a story outline, and, according to modern sources, the film was rushed into production to capitalize on the growing popularity of Veronica Lake, who had been chosen as the female lead. Modern sources note that the film was called The Redemption of Raven on the Paramount studio lot. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Paramount considered Charlie Ruggles for a role in the film. On December 5, 1941, Alan Ladd, whose blonde hair was dyed black to match the novel's description of Raven, collapsed on the set due to pneumonia and was hospitalized for a week before returning to work. In the interim, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.
Information in the MPPA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveals that the PCA had reservations about several sequences in the script. "Tommy's" description of his plans to kill "Ellen" were considered "unacceptable as they explain too closely the details of committing a crime." This moment remains in the film, as does the scene in which "Gates" is killed by Raven, although the PCA asked the filmmakers to change Raven's motive for the killing. Instead of killing for revenge, the PCA suggested Raven murder Gates because of his refusal to sign the confession. In the final film, however, Raven kills Gates because he hurt Ellen and then lied that she turned Raven in. The PCA issued a certificate of approval with the condition that the filmmakers delete "the scene of the policeman dying at the hands of the criminal," and "Robert Preston's final line 'He did all right by all of us.'" Although the shooting of the policeman remains in the film, Preston's line was altered. In the final film, as he dies, Raven asks Ellen, "Did I do all right for you?," and she nods silently.
The song "I'm Amazed at You" (music by Harold Spina and lyrics by Frank Loesser) did not make it into the film, although it was approved by the PCA. The final production cost of the film was $512,423, which was $63,423 over budget. Despite the fact that Alan Ladd received an "and introducing" credit, he had already appeared in bit parts in dozens of films. According to a 1946 Saturday Evening Post interview, Ladd chose Raven as his favorite role, and credits this film with launching his career as a major film star. Contemporary reviews affirm his assertion. Daily Variety noted in their review that "the story proves inspirational to a skillful young actor, Alan Ladd, whom, in the killer role, it elevates to the status of stardom; [and] to Frank Tuttle, whose direction restores him to the upper rank of his profession." The New York Times review notes: "...Mr. Ladd is the buster; he is really an actor to watch. After this stinging performance, he has something to live up to-or live down." Reviews also noted the acting achievement of Laird Cregar, who was borrowed from Fox, as "masterly." According to a December 1947 article in the New York Times, the MPAA banned the re-release or reissue of this film and a number of other films produced between 1928 and 1947 due to its objectionable criminal content. The ban was part of a recent move by the MPAA to introduce new, stronger regulations "to prevent the glorification of crime and criminals on the screen."
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake became a popular screen couple, and were teamed again in three other Paramount films: The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Saigon (1948). They also made cameo appearances in Star Spangled Rhythm (1943) and Duffy's Tavern (1945). This Gun for Hire is considered by many modern sources as one of the first important pictures in the "film noir" genre. In 1957, Paramount issued a remake based on Albert Maltz and W. R. Burnett's screenplay called Short Cut to Hell, directed by James Cagney and starring Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson. Alan Ladd and Laird Cregar reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on January 25, 1943, co-starring Joan Blondell.