Many, many movies have featured baby-faced killers. Men and women who look too sweet, too innocent, too young to be remorseless villains. Filmmakers seem to delight in deceiving the audience with a character’s appearance, making us wonder how someone so beautiful could be so evil.
Twenty-nine-year-old Alan Ladd had a luminous, boyish face, with rounded features that exuded a harmless niceness. Ladd himself was soft-spoken, shy, and kind, according to those who knew him. So casting him as a ruthless assassin-for-hire wouldn’t seem to be very sensible, but that’s just what the filmmakers did for This Gun for Hire. They cast the sweetest-looking actor as the coldest-acting character, and the juxtaposition between his appearance and his behavior made the role a star-making one for Ladd.
Raven (Ladd) kills people for money. He does his job quietly and efficiently. No muss, no fuss. It’s not personal, it’s business. If anyone gets in his way, that’s just too bad. His only soft spot is for cats. He loves cats because he identifies with them — they don’t need anyone, they fend for themselves, just like him.
He takes a job killing someone to recover some stolen chemical formulas, but Gates, the man who hired him (Laird Cregar), double-crosses him. He pays Raven in stolen money and then sets the police on his tail. Raven sets out to find Gates and pay him back for the double-cross. On the way, he meets Ellen (Veronica Lake). They randomly sit next to each other on the train and get companionable.
Ellen’s been asked by some government agents to take a job at a nightclub so she can try to get into the boss’s favor and find out what he knows about some stolen chemical formulas that someone might want to sell to America’s enemies. The formulas could mean our losing World War Two, which was raging full force in 1942. Ellen agrees even though she’s not allowed to tell her fiancé Michael (Robert Preston) about the real reason she’s taking this new job.
Michael is a police detective. He’s trying to find some stolen money. So he’s tracking Raven while Raven is tracking Gates, and Gates just happens to be that nightclub boss that Ellen’s supposed to get friendly with. So everyone ends up all mixed up with each other whether they like it or not.
Raven, who coldly kills strangers, who threatens little girls, who slaps cleaning ladies, and who protects cats… Raven thinks Ellen is going to mess up his chances of getting to Gates. He takes her off into an abandoned building to shoot her. But… he doesn’t. It seems cats aren’t the only thing he can take a liking to. When Ellen gets kidnapped, it’s not her police detective fiancé who rescues her, it’s Raven. When Raven gets cornered by the cops, it’s not his gun that rescues him, it’s Ellen.
Ellen convinces Raven he’s not alone in the world, and that there are more important things in the world than getting paid. He agrees to help her get the goods on who’s planning to sell secrets to the country’s enemies, even without the promise of a reward. And he does, but not before his past catches up with him. Raven saves Ellen, helps save his country, but he can’t quiet manage to save himself.
Throughout the film, the theme of a person’s looks versus their behavior comes up repeatedly. Gates thinks Ellen is a little dumb and totally harmless because she’s a pretty girl. Michael thinks he’s going to be the hero because he’s a handsome policeman. Raven, who has a deformed wrist resulting from childhood abuse, but that angelic face, learns that who he is inside is more important than how many people are afraid of him. Watching this dichotomy explored onscreen is one of the things that elevates This Gun for Hire from run-of-the-mill early film noir to a classic worth watching more than once. It too has more going on under the surface than you might expect at first glance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com