Film Highlight: This Gun for Hire

Alan Ladd stars in <i>This Gun for Hire</i>

Alan Ladd stars in This Gun for Hire

Robert Preston and Veronica Lake got top billing, but it was bottom-billed Alan Ladd—"introduced" after more than three dozen films, including the previous year's Citizen Kane—who came away a star from this slam-bang 1942 film of Graham Greene's pulp thriller. As hit man Philip Raven, double-crossed by the shady chemical-secrets spies who hired him, Ladd enters the movie slapping the broad who swatted his cat: Even after he shoots down his first target in cold blood, he seems to be the hero simply by right of star presence. By comparison, his honest-cop pursuer (Preston) is a virtuous dullard—leaving us perversely to root for Raven as he hunts down his effete contact (Laird Cregar), killing any cop who gets in his way. It's also easy to see why Lake, as Preston's undercover-decoy girlfriend, prefers the company of Ladd's edgy hood: The heat in their near-clinches made them Paramount's answer to Bogie and Bacall throughout the mid-'40s. Director Frank Tuttle and screenwriters W.R. Burnett and Albert Maltz traverse Los Angeles from hobo jungles to executive suites without finding respectability. One wonders whether gangster specialist Burnett (who wrote both the original Scarface and the novel Little Caesar) or soon-to-be blacklisted Maltz supplied the movie's remorseless identification with Raven, or its fingering of corporate profiteers as America's real public enemies. But that matters less than the movie's launching of a hardboiled tradition: the creep as hero, whose ruthlessness is not a tragic flaw but his most alluring trait. Pursue him long enough and you eventually reach Pickup on South Street, Point Blank, and Le Samourai—along with the recent cinema's unblinking, unthinking worship of killers for hire.