This Gun for Hire (1942), grafts a noir tale of an ice-cold hit-man to some WWII propaganda about enemy spies among us. Alan Ladd plays Raven, an assassin who never smiles except when he’s murdering or with a kitty. Veronica Lake is the young woman improbably recruited to ferret out spies who is also engaged to the cop who is chasing Raven. Surely, Ladd’s laconic, minimalist performance was an inspiration for Melville’s Le samourai (1967) which features a similarly cat-obessed (and hat obsessed) hit-man of few words. But Raven is a psychopath while le samourai was a stylized, super-cool character.
We meet Raven doing a job, smiling just a bit before he plugs his victim. He goes on to murder an unintended female witness to the crime in cold blood.
Later, we see Raven in his miserable apartment, feeding stray cats milk. When he’s on the lam with the unwilling Ellen (Veronica Lake) he tells her that cats bring him luck. Ellen senses a vulnerable soul beneath the murderous shell. Quite a stretch considering that Raven was ready to murder her too in cold blood earlier in the film. She’s a bit of a softy to be a spy catcher.
Raven is out to kill the fat man who likes mints who hired him and paid him in marked bills. The idea was to get the police onto him, they would shoot him down, and fatso’s traitorous dealings for his boss, the fifth-columnist capitalist owner of a poison gas plant would get off scott free. In the image at the top, the fat man asks Raven how does he feel…when…he does that? He is revolted by violence, but Raven says he feels fine.
Ellen gets abducted by fatso, and tied up by his thuggish valet who takes pleasure in his skullduggery. While his boss, effeminate though he is, gushes over Ellen’s lovely body, his thug refers to his job of tying her up as a “work of art.” It’s a strange, kinky sequence that seems to graft Vincent Price gothic to noir.
Holed up in broken down train car for the evening, Raven shows his damaged core to Ellen and she acts as a surrogate therapist. He says he has heard of some doctor, a psycho-something who treats people with dreams. Tell him your dream, and you won’t have it anymore. Ellen promises not to laugh at him if he tells his dream, and he reveals his dreamed and remembered childhood of abandonment and physical abuse, beaten from age 3 by his aunt, in stark detail. Social realism and psychoanalysis meld seamlessly with melodrama.
Ellen, mindful of her government mission which she can reveal to no one, wants to make a deal with him. If he will let her go, she will help him elude the police so he can get his man, and lead the police to the spies. But only if he promises to stop killing people. He doesn’t really want to kill the guy who set him up. That would be just killing her again… He must break his pathological cycle of violence into which he was born.
They make the deal. She will act as a decoy. Doesn’t she look cute in that fedora?
Eventually, the showdown comes and the fat guy and the old rich traitor are taken care of. Needless to say, Raven dies, but not before he has spared Ellen’s cop-boyfriend whom he had in his sights.