This Gun for Hire (1942)

This Gun for Hire is about a hired killer named Raven, and it uses a variety of means to make us like him. First, Raven is played by Alan Ladd, who is good looking, and we have a natural inclination to like good-looking people. Second, he has a cat for a pet, of which he is very protective, causing him to slap a maid when she runs the cat out of the room after it knocks over a can of milk. We tend to like people who like animals. True, we tend to not like men who slap women, but that is the sort of thing we would expect from a man who kills people for money. It is the positive qualities that he is given to make us like him, in spite of the negative ones that would ordinarily make us not like him, that are interesting.

When he goes to an apartment where there is a man he is supposed to kill, he sees a little girl sitting on the stairs with her legs in braces, probably a victim of polio. He doesn’t like the fact that she is a witness, but he continues on up the stairs. Once inside the room, he is dismayed by the presence of a woman. After he kills the man, he sort of apologizes to the woman, saying he was told the man would be alone, and then he shoots her too. The man he killed was a blackmailer, so we had no sympathy for him, but in killing the woman, who presumably was nothing more than a girlfriend of the blackmailer, Raven shows that he is not averse to killing someone who is innocent, if she happens to be a witness. As a result, we wonder if he will shoot the little girl too on his way back down the stairs. He is tempted, but takes pity on her and simply leaves after handing her the ball she dropped. That is another way the movie gets us to like him.

Furthermore, the movie gives us another villain, Willard Gates, whom we are encouraged to despise. Gates is played by Laird Cregar, who just has the look and manner of someone creepy. He is the one who hired Raven to do the job. He pays Raven off in ten dollar bills, and then double-crosses him by giving the serial numbers to the police so that Raven will go to prison where he cannot talk. At least, that is the idea, but it really doesn’t make sense, because the best way to keep a hit-man from talking to the police is by not double-crossing him. In any event, it turns out that Gates works for a chemical company that is selling a formula for poison gas to the Japanese during World War II. Compared to Gates, Raven seems to be a pretty good guy, for a hit-man.

Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a showgirl, is enlisted by a senator to go undercover and investigate Gates and his company. This naturally results in her and Raven crossing paths. He almost kills her to keep her from talking, but she gets away. Eventually, they come to like each other, especially after he rescues her from Gates, who was planning to have her killed. Raven confides in her about dreams he keeps having of the woman who raised him as a child, who beat him regularly, and even hit him with a flatiron, deforming his wrist. This movie was made when psychoanalysis was familiar to audiences, who were therefore primed to accept childhood trauma as an explanation for mental problems later in life. Even today, we tend to accept this explanation for why Raven is the way he is, somewhat excusing his evil nature.

Raven wants to get even with Gates and with Brewster (Tully Marshall), the man Gates works for, while Ellen wants to find out if those two men are traitors. This leads them to cooperate with each other, with Ellen telling Raven where he can find the two men. Brewster is an old man in a wheel chair, which makes him the third person in this movie with some kind of physical disability, though there seems to be no special significance about that in this case, unless it is to provide a dramatic contrast between his physical weakness and his lust for power. In any event, when Raven forces Brewster to sign a confession, the latter dies of a heart attack, after which Raven kills Gates. This is a common ploy of the movies, having the protagonist act from personal motives, which just happen to be of great help for the war effort or some other noble cause. So this is another way the movie gets us to like Raven.

Finally, Raven starts to shoot a police detective, but when he sees that he is Ellen’s fiancé, he holds his fire. This consideration for her makes us like him some more. Then he is shot by a policeman and dies. Because his death is the proper punishment for the crimes he has committed, it balances the books, allowing us to like him without feeling guilty about it.

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