May 19, 1942 [This Gun for Hire]

Philip Raven is a hired gun, but This Gun for Hire does not let him enjoy his work--even though he runs into Veronica Lake, who commanded so much of my attention last year in Sullivan's Travels that I didn't give a tinker's damn whether O Brother, Where Art Thou? ever got made--as long as Veronica got to peek out at me.

But This Gun for Hire is made of darker stuff. In his first appearance, Raven indulges a kitten with a saucer of milk. The girl comes in to clean up--he's in the next room--and she starts to shoo the kitten. Raven steps in and promptly tears her dress and hits her. Later, hiding in an abandoned train car with Lake's Ellen, he suffocates a cat whose miaowing threatens to alert his pursuers. And more: His first hit is a blackmailer; his secretary is unexpectedly there, and he shoots her as well. Later, after Ellen helps him escape from a train, he attempts to shoot her, too. This kind of thing goes on and on: Raven is a dead-eyed psychopath with a laddie's face, a small thing without a conscience--or at least no opportunity or desire to use it, until the end, when he saves Ellen, and is rewarded by dying in her arms.

Alan Ladd as Raven is casually appalling in a movie soaked in midnight, allowing him no escape. The only light that glimmers at the periphery comes from Veronica Lake's hair. Together, they are beautiful and pathetic, little folk with strange eyes, leaning against one another, a kind of love at first sight--despite the terror Raven instills in Ellen (after a particularly harrowing encounter with him, another character makes the delirious observation, "What's the matter with you? You look like you've been on a hayride with Dracula."). When she kisses his cheek, he sheds years of abuse and depravity, at least to love her enough to hold on to her hand, tight, lost babes in the dark woods.

As weird as the ending is--the evil industrialist geezer keeling over (Tully Marshall in a slightly aphasic performance, muttering, obscenely slurping at milk-dipped crackers), the double-crossing flunky, the gas masks and reckless gunplay, the capitalist traitor--it is unimportant to my stunned yearning: I wanted Raven to get away, to kill everybody he had to and melt into the tangled mess of the stockyards, like something in a fable, a talking woodland creature--or cat?--that saves the lost child--children, both of them. They take turns, in fact, saving one another, until I was exhausted by the steep climb to his partial redemption.

In the railroad car, Raven delivers a monologue about his childhood, how his mother beat him all the time, even striking him with a "red-hot flatiron." And he kills her. Ellen watches him, unable to respond, as he half-explains his psychosis. And I almost cried over the little man, and it wasn't just his sad life, or Graham Greene and Albert Maltz's script--which has its moments of bludgeoning truth--but simply Ladd's posture, like a boy forced to recite, while the cat, unseen, dies beneath his hands, and Veronica Lake's dreamlike face--its planes almost too sharp, while the hair floats in natural soft-focus--stares like a thin moon at the damage, but manages to walk with him all the way, past the "dark, wet boughs" and into cleaner air.


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