Vintage Pulp Jan 14 2011
DIRTY WORK
This Gun for Hire is a celebrated proto-noir—but is it good?

We checked the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes for its assessment of the thriller This Gun for Hire and learned that the film scored over 92% among its stable of professional critics. Ninety-two percent? Then surely this must be one of the greatest films ever made, a near flawless work of art. But when you read the reviews more closely, many note the film’s unbelievable plot, reliance upon coincidence, cheesy musical interludes, and less-than-stellar dialogue. So then what’s with the high rating? Well, let’s just say professional critics sometimes rate with their sense of film history rather than their heads. This Gun for Hire helped establish tropes that would be used again and again as the film noir genre developed and flourished, so that’s a big reason film experts like the movie. But is it good? Well…

Now, don’t get us wrong—we aren’t out to slam the flick. Who’d listen to us anyway? We’re just a couple of heavy drinkers who slapped together a website out of sheer boredom. But we’re also fairly bright, and fairly well-versed in film, and we feel confident in saying that any honest assessment of This Gun for Hire would stress the bothersome structural improbabilities. Example A: Veronica Lake plays a San Francisco nightclub performer/magician who happens to catch the eye of a big-timeclub owner, who invites her to perform in L.A., resulting in a train ride that not only coincides with his, but with that of a hired killer he has betrayed, leading directly to an eye-roller in which that very same killer sits in the only empty seat in the carriage—right next to our singer Ms. Lake. Anything that puts Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake together is justified, to an extent, so you’ll probably let that pass. Example B: Lake is engaged to a cop who happens to be part of an investigation into two murders committed by the very same killer sitting next to Lake on the SF/LA night express. Hmm. There’s more, much more, but you get the point.

So what about that 92% rating? Well, Alan Ladd is magnetic and brutally handsome as the ice-cold killer Philip Raven. Veronica Lake is less good as the chanteuse Ellen Graham, but still manages a game performance in a role that could be better written. Robert Preston is note-perfect as the boyfriend detective. So there’s all that. The film looks good, is well-directed by Frank Tuttle, moves quickly and builds a nice atmosphere ofmenace. So there are those things too. And again, the film is a building block in the genre that would later become known as film noir. But if, hypothetically, you’ve never seen a film noir or classic melodrama and This Gun for Hire were to be your first, it would not convert you into a fan. On the other hand, if you already enjoy mid-century cinema, this one will fit snugly in your comfort zone. All in all, we very much appreciate the movie, but a film that rates 92% among professional critics should not be so chock-full of coincidences that even a fourteen-year-old would be incredulous.

At top you see one of the movie’s three French-language posters. The other two are below. This Gun for Hire, which opened Stateside in 1942 but went unseen in Europe due to the inconvenience of World War II, finally premiered in Paris as Tueur à gages or “Hired Killer” today in 1947. 

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
February 27
1922—Challenge to Women's Voting Rights Rebuffed
In the United States, a conservative legal challenge to the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing voting rights for women is rebuffed by the Supreme Court in Leser v. Garnett. The challenge was based partly on the idea of individual "states rights" to self determination. The failure of such reasoning as it applied to basic human rights created a framework for later states rights losses involving the denial of voting rights to African-Americans.
February 26
1917—First Jazz Record Is Made
In New Orleans, The Original Dixieland Jass Band records the first ever jazz record for the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York. The band was frequently billed as the "Creators of Jazz", but in reality all the members had previously played in the Papa Jack Laine bands, a group of racially mixed performers who helped form the basis of Dixieland while playing under bandleader George Laine.
February 25
1947—Prussia Ceases To Exist
The centuries-old state of Prussia, which had been a great European power under the reign of Frederick the Great during the 1800s, and a major influence on German culture, ceases to exist when it is dissolved by the post-WWII Allied Control Council comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.
1964—Clay Beats Liston
Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, aged 22, becomes champion of the world after beating Sonny Liston, aka the Dark Destroyer, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. It would be the beginning of a storied and controversial career for Clay, who would announce to the world shortly after the fight that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
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