Frank Tuttle is a filmmaker you don’t hear much about — possibly because of the former Communist Party member naming names for HUAC — and yet he has an impressive filmography dating back to the early 1920s. He was one of the few silent directors who made a smooth transition to talkies, becoming something of an innovator in that transitional period from silence to sound. Maybe it’s a case of him simply turning out too many movies in too many genres — making him more a craftsman than an artist — but at his best, Tuttle was just about as good as any Hollywood director. This Gun for Hire (1942) is Tuttle at his very best. Indeed, it’s a landmark film for a number of reasons, not the least of which was turning Alan Ladd into a major movie star in what would seem to be the impossible role of a psychotic hired killer. Strangely — and unfortunately — the film doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and isn’t much revived these days.
We could spend hours discussing why that might be, but I’ve always suspected that it has a lot to do with the fact that Graham Greene’s 1936 novel was not merely Americanized and updated, but updated in a manner that allowed it to be infused with a degree of anti-Japanese WWII propaganda, making it seem more “dated” than the better known examples of film noir. That’s too bad, because even with the topicality, it’s one of the very best such films. It’s a nearly perfect combination of writing (Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett), directing, cinematography (John Seitz), music (David Buttolph) and performances. (There are also a couple of pretty good songs by Frank Loesser and Jacques Press for Veronica Lake — well, as dubbed by Martha Mears.)
The story is solid from scene one on. Ladd’s depiction of Raven, the hired killer, is riveting from his very first scene. It’s no surprise that he became a star. The surprise is that he became a romantic star by playing a cold-blooded killer who says that he feels “fine” while killing his victims. What puts him over is his inadvertent relationship with Veronica Lake’s Ellen Graham, the nightclub singer who is kind to him in her patented, cool Veronica Lake way. Still, it was a singularly unusual path to stardom any way you look at it, but there’s no accounting for chemistry. The supporting cast — especially Laird Cregar as the smarmy, cringing, sex-obsessed subordinate villain and Tully Marshall as the aged criminal mastermind — helps a great deal to make it all work so well.
The Asheville Film Society will screen This Gun for Hire Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.