Ad-line: “Lover without a heart…killer without a conscience!” Another: “He’s dynamite with a gun or a girl.”
Or, there are the spoken lines excerpted for the theatrical trailer: “That’s sucker talk….You are trying to make me go soft. Well, you can save it. I don’t go soft for anybody.”
Alan Ladd in THIS GUN FOR HIRE offers moral ambiguity in a suspense thriller – early, seminal film noir, with songs, and the sleeper hit of 1942.
One of Fox’s memorable Zane Grey western vehicles for George O’Brien was THE LONE STAR RANGER (1930). Leading lady was an adorable Clara Bow-type named Sue Carol. Born Evelyn Lederer, she was also star of the original GIRLS GONE WILD (1929) and the closest friend of Dixie Lee Crosby. When the flapper era ended Sue Carol left acting in 1937 to start a talent agency.
A couple years later, listening to the radio, Carol was mesmerized by the rich, deep voice of an actor she would rescue as her fourth husband – diminutive, insecure Alan Ladd, six years her junior. Just listening to that resonant radio voice, immediately, Carol was sold.
“She thought I’d be 60 years old,” Ladd laughed later. “We were both glad I wasn’t.” When they met, upon first sight, Carol thought Ladd’s green eyes were “unfathomable – an actor’s eyes. He was for me,” she said. Carol told Ladd right off she wanted to represent him for stardom on the big screen. Ladd was not interested. He had been clawing at the fringes of movies since 1932 and was resigned finally to a career on radio. Where his short stature did not matter.
“No, I’ve tried pictures, believe me,” Ladd explained in defeat. “Producers tell me I’m too blond, too short, too this, too that.” He was weary of so much personal rejection. One producer complained of Ladd to Carol, “He looks like a freak with those green eyes, dark eyebrows and light hair.” Another told her, “That young man has no sex appeal.” His ten year tour unsuccessfully knocking on casting-office doors supported such an assessment.
But Carol persisted. She first steered Ladd into a quick succession of bit parts. Because he was blond, and “looked like he could be German,” Carol recounted, Ladd was cast in HITLER, BEAST OF BERLIN (1939). Next she got him a small role in a Hal Roach programmer, CAPTAIN CAUTION (1940), which he flat out stole. Then in no less than CITIZEN KANE (1941), Ladd won the part of a pipe-smoking newsman, standing mostly in the shadows, with three lines to speak, one being, “Or Rosebud?”
The real break for Alan Ladd came when Sue Carol learned that a director at Paramount was “looking for an actor,” she later explained to writer Walter Wagner, “who can play a cold-blooded killer and still come off sympathetically.”
The director was Frank Tuttle, Yale grad, and thereafter an editor at VANITY FAIR. He had made six pictures with Clara Bow, and five with Bing Crosby, including TWO FOR TONIGHT (1935). Tuttle also helmed the first adaptation of THE GLASS KEY (1935), as well as THE STUDIO MURDER MYSTERY (1929), THE GREENE MURDER CASE (1929), and THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1930). All worthwhile.
In 1936 the distinguished British novelist Graham Greene (with credits including MINISTRY OF FEAR, THE FUGITIVE, and THE THIRD MAN) penned A GUN FOR SALE. For publication in America , the title was changed to THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Paramount Pictures paid $12,000 to adapt this literary property for the screen.
The studio saw the story as an Alfred Hitchcock-type thriller and announced in mid-1936 that scenarist and future production chieftain at M-G-M Dore Schary was writing a screenplay to star Hungarian-born, globular-eyed, Peter Lorre, as “Raven,” the book’s lead character, a cold, professional killer.
Directors first attached were Germany ’s E. A. Dupont, then France ’s Robert Florey (co-writer on FRANKENSTEIN). Development on this yarn continued for a year, concluding with Maurice Geraghty (writer on Paramount ’s Hopalong Cassidy series) trying hard to deliver a suitable screenplay that could be produced for a reasonable cost. He failed.
In 1939, now intending to shoot European style across England, the project was revived when Frank Tuttle, as he explained, “asked if Paramount owned anything which they had never made because of some problem in the story no one had been able to solve.” The problems with A GUN FOR SALE included the London setting (soon switched to Los Angeles and San Francisco ), and Raven’s harelip, which played okay on the printed page but would not work on the screen. The deformity would have caused any actor portraying the character to speak in a peculiar way. The consequence would have been unintended laughter from audiences about a homicidal misfit.
A facial scar was considered instead, but Tuttle passed on that device because Joan Crawford had just been so disfigured in A WOMAN’S FACE (1941). Tuttle had to find some way to shock and repulse people who met Raven, as a way of explaining why he was mean and hated everyone – women in particular.
The solution was to invent a back-story. It was filmed as a dream sequence, then deleted after a preview. Our Gang’s Dickie Jones (also the voice of PINOCCHIO) played Raven as an orphaned boy who was mistreated by a hateful aunt who beat him. One day she savagely crushed his wrist with a flatiron for stealing a piece of chocolate. In response, the youngster killed her. His wrist was left misshapen and marked him ever after.
As of April, 1940, actor Anthony Quinn was one of the writers working with Tuttle. It was not until June of 1941 that the film’s credited team began their story outline – W.R. Burnett (LITTLE CAESAR, BEAST OF THE CITY, SCARFACE and HIGH SIERRA were his powerhouse credits), and Albert Maltz. Like Tuttle, Maltz was a Yale grad. They also shared an affiliation with the Communist Party, but whereas Maltz would become one of the infamous, blacklisted Hollywood Ten convicted on charges of contempt of Congress, Tuttle would bravely testify as a star witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee concerning his Hollywood fellow travelers, although at the cost of damaging his career.
By October 27, 1941, on an approved budget of $449,000 (the average cost of production in town that year was $336,600), and with a working title of THE REDEMPTION OF RAVEN, the project was finally ready to roll on the Paramount lot in Hollywood . The real impetus at last had been the studio’s pressing need to find a vehicle for contracted hot property Veronica Lake . She had just hit big as a zombie-like little sex siren slithering through SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941) for famed director Preston Sturges.
“She’s one of the little people,” Sturges enthused about Veronica Lake. “Like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Freddie Bartholomew when he started, who take hold immediately with their audiences. She’s nothing much in real life – a quiet, rather timid little thing. But the screen transforms her, electrifies her, and brings her to life. I think, she’s the biggest bet in the business.” High praise, from one of the greats.
Veronica Lake ’s trademark was her shoulder length, blond, half-curtain hairstyle, falling over one eye, in peek-a-boo fashion. Many actresses would imitate Lake ’s long locks look, most notably Lauren Bacall, Ella Raines, and Lizabeth Scott. During war-time, the miniature blond would become, in the words of film historian David Thomson, “a face in the dreams of American soldiers.” On the home front, their girl friends working in defense plant factories copied Lake ’s page boy style at the cost of having their long tresses caught in machinery! The government officially asked Paramount to have Lake pin up and pull back her eye-obscuring coiffure in order that the United States might have a chance to win World War II. It is all part of the Congressional Record.
As a teenager the satin and silky-looking Lake was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, cited later as an explanation for her heavy drinking and promiscuity. Few knew she was actually mentally ill and needed help. The difficult-to-handle actress made three films with easy-going, likeable Eddie Bracken, who said of the baby-faced sex sensation, “She was known as ‘the bitch’ and deserved the title.”
Nevertheless with her little-girl-lost style, Lake was sultry and amazing to behold, beautiful, and burdened, as one Paramount exec put it, “with more bosoms than brains.” Apart from her looks, however, writer David Stenn concludes that her appeal “is not definable, because she isn’t there.”
Lake herself said, “You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision.” It was her ambitious stage mother who made the self-destructive Lake enter movies, then later sued her own daughter for nonsupport.
As for casting the psychopathic murderer, Raven, “Not one male star who suited the role was available,” Tuttle explained. He wanted an unknown. Initially Tuttle told Carol that Ladd looked like someone suited to say, “Tennis anyone?” Which had been Humphrey Bogart’s famous stage line on Broadway in the 1920s. But then Ladd tested so well – sensational, said some – that he got the part by default. To better match the novel’s character description of Raven, Ladd dyed his blond hair dark.
Paramount signed him at only $300 per week. Coincidentally RKO had contacted Carol with an offer of $500 per week, but she correctly realized, “GUN was a dream part. I didn’t care if Alan had to do it for nothing. I’d battled for a long time to get him this opportunity. So we decided to gamble. I didn’t even try to pit Paramount versus RKO to get his money up. I guess I wasn’t a good agent.” Carol never knew that Lake was being paid only $350 per week as the project’s star.
So this was the genesis of Ladd and Lake – angelic cold killer and delectable moll doll. They made an uneasy but popular team who between 1942 and 1948 would appear in four films together (including the remake of Tuttle’s THE GLASS KEY), plus cameos as a screen couple in two other all-star films, all for Paramount . Audiences voted approvingly at theatre box office windows. These two were a hit.
She was alluring. He was nonchalant. Her eyes were half covered. His were half closed. She was 5’1”. He was 5’4” (maybe 5’6”). Her voice was husky. His was soothing. She turned 19 during shooting (not 22 as the conniving mother led studios to believe). He was 28. Both oozed coolness. Both were tiny, blond, stone-faced, un-smiling, inexpressive, and insolent. Lots of icy stares. Both were raised fatherless, Catholic, and would die at age 50. Perhaps they had too much in common. Off-screen there was nothing between them. Nothing there.
In her 1968 autobiography, Lake wrote of the self-possessed pair, “We had less to do with each other than most acting teams. We’d arrive on the set early in the morning. Alan would nod and say, ‘Good morning, Ronni.’
“We’d go to make-up and wardrobe, play our scenes together, and go back to our dressing-rooms to take off the make-up and wardrobe.
“‘’night, Alan. See you tomorrow.’
“Both of us were very aloof people. We were a good match.”
Despite her amazing looks, the polite Ladd finally had to admit he had not enjoyed working with the petite Lake . But was it true, all the time? Positively? In its review, VARIETY commented on Ladd’s death scene in Lake ’s lap: “Better men have died with their heads in less pleasant places.”
At the time, she was happily married to M-G-M art director John Detlie, with a months-old baby girl. Right before GUN was released, Ladd wanted to marry Carol, but Paramount discouraged this as a “disastrous” move. “To hell with them,” he told her. “To hell with the career. We’re getting married.” He meant it. Ladd regularly informed Carol that every film he was making would be his last.
In the cast: watch for future TV stars Yvonne DeCarlo (THE MUNSTERS), and Richard Webb (CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT), in small roles. Webb observed the Ladd-Lake team on several pictures and said, “Sue Carol was Alan Ladd. The director would say, ‘Cut.’ Alan would not look at the director afterwards, but at Sue. He’d go over and get the reading from her and come back and say, ‘Let’s do it again.’ The director would re-shoot the scene and say, ‘Cut,’ again. Alan would again look at Sue, and if the scene was okay by her, he’d say, ‘Okay, print that one.’ Veronica wasn’t so selective. She usually did her scenes in one take, rarely blowing a line or a reaction, while Alan was under the heavy-handed control of his wife, Sue Carol.”
According to the industry trade papers, Charlie Ruggles was up for some unspecified part in the picture.
The the ponderous Laird Cregar, nearly steals GUN as the fussy, florid, double-crossing, jumbo-sized 6’3” heavy. Owing to their dimensions’ differential, Tuttle had to be careful how he used Cregar and Ladd in the same camera frame. Cregar was only 26 years of age. He had his hairline shaved back and wore a mustache to look older for this role as the film’s squeamish saboteur and chief menace. Tragically, Cregar died at 28 following a crash diet that stressed his heart.
The nominal leading man – completely overshadowed by the smaller Ladd – was Robert Preston, star of routine pictures who gained fame later for his dynamic performance on stage as THE MUSIC MAN, made into the 1961 movie. For a short time before Tuttle wanted an unknown, Preston was slated to portray Raven.
Despite her physical gifts and screen presence, Veronica Lake was an actress of limited range, and so audiences didn’t believe for a second that she could have any interest whatsoever in Preston, whose undeserving character was seemingly outwitted in every scene he played. Originally his character had the line at the end, speaking of Raven, “He did all right by all of us” (which the PCA demanded be excised). Instead the line was varied and given to Raven, who asked of Lake ’s character, “Did I do all right for you?”
For one sequence Lake was called upon to sing, dance, act and perform magic all at the same time. She pretty much couldn’t do any of these things individually, much less all at once. Her singing was dubbed by Martha Mears. And future Bowery Boys producer Jan Grippo attempted teaching Lake some alleged magic tricks. “I didn’t learn a thing,” she later admitted, but needn’t have bothered telling us. The monkey in that scene tried some tricks of his own, biting Lake (who did look delicious). The poor monkey had to be sedated to stop.
Lake, Preston and Cregar are all laughably billed above Ladd in the closing credits. To open the picture, a card reads “Introducing Alan Ladd,” even though he had already appeared in at least 30 films, including one with Laurel & Hardy and a western made in Lone Pine.
Final negative cost totaled $512,423.16, a 14% cost overrun. Shooting on the picture concluded December 16, 1941. The complicated but timely story told of a Japanese plot to acquire poison gas and drop chemical bombs across America . During production Ladd caught a winter cold. Despite always wearing that trench coat, filming outside at night made him worse. Many scenes in the final cut were taken while Ladd was suffering with a high fever. Watch carefully; there are scenes where this is evident, and Ladd’s condition actually worked to aid his deadpan performance. On December 5, he collapsed while rehearsing on a Paramount stage. Ladd was hospitalized with pneumonia on December 7 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor . By the time he was able to return to the GUN set, the United States was at war with Japan .
THIS GUN FOR HIRE opened at the Paramount Theatre in New York on May 13, 1942. Woody Herman and The Ink Spots were on hand for the big stage show. The official release date was June 19. Three months previously on March 16, the picture had been tradeshown at the Hotel Ambassador Theatre in Los Angeles. For once, despite a warm reception from an audience of exhibitors and critics, the VARIETY notice was badly mistaken, concluding, “It’s a vehicle of little importance and limited appeal. Also, slightly disconcerting to the heroine, as all sympathy went to Ladd. THIS GUN FOR HIRE has difficulties ahead.”
Such difficulties included: Where, oh where, to put all the cash raked in at theatre box office windows, both for this initial release (where domestic film rental quickly exceeded one million dollars) and for subsequent reissues (the first, only three years later, was in 1945). Once Ladd and Lake were screen icons who audiences were talking about, and eagerly wished to revisit, any theater playing GUN was going to be packed. Why was that? For starters, clearly the sensual Lake looked terrific. Men flocked to see her. And Ladd combined raw ruthlessness with sensitivity (like the scenes of him feeding milk to the several stray cats). Women lapped it up.
Bosley Crowther in THE NEW YORK TIMES exclaimed, “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….It is no gross exaggeration to say that Mr. Ladd is the hottest new actor to hit pictures since Clark Gable.” Of course Ladd was not a new actor. What was new was being cast against type, making the blond, boyish, nice, handsome, clean-cut Ladd into a neurotic, cold-blooded, conflicted killing machine, and an existential antihero. That was new.
Paramount immediately raised Ladd to $750 per week and gave him a $5,000 bonus…out of the millions coming in. Domestic revenue collected by the studio out of boxoffice receipts for the original release of THIS GUN FOR HIRE slightly exceeded $1 million.
In its review, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER cited Ladd as an “important discovery…certain to be much talked about for his brilliant portrayal,” and declared moviegoers would have to search long and hard “to find more tense and gripping melodrama than THIS GUN FOR HIRE…word will surely get around that here is a hit attraction.”
And yet it is far from a perfect film, and plays at times like a routine “B” or “B-plus” action effort. The process photography looks cheap. Preston, force-fed as the co-star, has painfully little to do. Lake ’s dubbed songs and trick photography take the edge off the film noir atmosphere. And why would America enlist and depend upon anyone like Lake ’s singing-magician character as its agent pitted against the ferocious Japanese war machine? How did that happen? What genius in the War Department made that decision? And for certain scenes, one is tempted somehow to try and get the laconic Lake ’s attention in order to inquire from the audience, “What’s wrong here? Are you even in this movie?”
The HARVARD LAMPOON had just voted her the award for “Worst New Actress of the Year.” Archer Winsten, however, writing in THE NEW YORK POST, was content to review, and fondly, Lake ’s “truly splendid bosom.”
THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS hailed Lake as “a woman of destiny. She suggests a wink combined with rigor mortis. When she smiles, as she does perhaps twice in the film, hearts can be heard to break – smack – throughout the loges, and the tougher element upstairs have to shout their ecstasy.”
Some fans today still feel that way. Stars whose vintage portrait stills continue to smash auction house sales records include Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (in their key horror films), also Jean Harlow, Louise Brooks, and Veronica Lake . With its striking graphic design, the melodramatic one-sheet movie poster for GUN, which Lake dominates, remains a much-coveted staple at auction venues, selling for upwards of $25,000.
As time passed, film noir’s version of Astaire and Rogers seemed to carry on lives to parallel their movies’ dark plots. Ladd appeared in THE GREAT GATSBY (1949) but did not make anything to surpass THIS GUN FOR HIRE until he was directed by George Stevens in SHANE (1953). It is hardly a sequel to GUN, but one cannot fully relate to and enjoy the latter without having seen the former. There is the implication that the character of “Shane” is somehow the reinvention of “Raven” – a former fast-gun murdering mercenary, now older, wiser, and transposed back in time with a second chance at redemption. THE REDEMPTION OF RAVEN could well have been the working title for both classic films. Ladd turned down the James Dean role in Stevens’ GIANT (1956).
Like Lake, Ladd had a drinking problem that grew worse. “Alan always held much of himself back,” Sue Carol reflected in 1975. “He felt rejected, insecure.” In 1963 Ladd shot himself in the chest “while searching for a suspected prowler,” was the explanation offered. Perhaps the family was reaching back to GUN to account for what happened:
Ellen Graham: Why don’t you go to the police?
Philip Raven: I’m my own police.
Ladd’s mother committed suicide in 1937. Hollywood insiders believed that in 1964 Ladd did the same, using “a high level of alcohol combined with three medicines and sleeping pills.” Ladd was but 50. Among survivors, Alan Ladd Jr. seems to have successfully run every major studio in Hollywood . Alana Ladd married radio talk show pioneer Michael Jackson. Cheryl Ladd is the former wife of David Ladd who once made a fine film with his father called THE PROUD REBEL (1958).
Veronica Lake has been described as an “ex-novelty” after she was forced to cut her gimmicky hairstyle. The actress’s schizophrenia made Lake behave in temperamental and self-destructive ways so that Paramount finally dropped her. She never recovered.
In 1962 Chuck McCann intended to meet someone who was late for an appointment. Killing time, he ducked into a lounge at the Martha Washington Hotel on Manhattan ’s East 29th Street and stopped at the counter to get some coffee. He suddenly looked up as he heard the voice of his waitress. He searched her eyes but saw only unfamiliar wrinkles. “You know,” he said haltingly, almost relieved, “if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you look like Veronica Lake .” The waitress leaned forward, and said, “I am Veronica Lake .”
She returned to Hollywood in 1971 and told a reporter, “If I had stayed in Hollywood I would have ended up like Alan Ladd and Gail Russell – dead and buried by now. That rat race killed them and I knew it eventually would kill me so I had to get out.” The hard times had taken a toll on Lake ’s looks, and her outlook. “I’ve earned this face,” she explained in between a streak of expletives. “To each his own. At least I’m not a mainliner, and it’s more fun getting high without a needle. At least you can get over the booze.” Veronica Lake died two years later in 1973, like Ladd, at age 50, of acute hepatitis, often the result of mainlining the hard drugs. In 2004, her ashes were found in the inventory of a New York antique store.
On January 25, 1943, Alan Ladd enacted THIS GUN FOR HIRE over the radio with Joan Blondell. On April 2, 1945 he performed it again with Veronica Lake . On January 24, 1944, over the CBS network, Ladd and Hedy Lamarr did the LUX RADIO THEATRE version of CASABLANCA .
In the interest of discouraging “the glorification of crime and criminals on the screen,” in late 1947 the MPAA refused to approve the theatrical reissue of THIS GUN FOR HIRE.
The film was remade in 1957 as SHORT CUT TO HELL, the lone directing credit for another Hollywood “tough guy,” James Cagney. Later Sammy Davis Jr. announced plans for a second remake. Neither one was necessary. They did it right the first time.
In 1958 THIS GUN FOR HIRE was one of 700 movies in the Paramount library which was sold, foolishly, to MCA, the company that soon after acquired and also changed its name to Universal Pictures. Today a big stage at Paramount is named for Alan Ladd, but the studio no longer owns most of the films he made there. Those films for hire…were all shot, and sold.