Lake and Ladd pack heat in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar star in “This Gun for Hire.”

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood Ten) and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more…]

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‘This Gun for Hire’ opens Noir City: Hollywood Festival on Friday at the Egyptian Theatre

The Veronica LakeAlan Ladd quintessential film noir “This Gun for Hire,” co-starring Laird Cregar, opens the Noir City: Hollywood Festival on Friday at the Egyptian Theatre. Directed by Frank Tuttle from a Graham Greene novel, the 1942 film helped shape many archetypes of the genre. Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood Ten) and W.R. Burnett wrote the script, with an uncredited contribution from Tuttle. John F. Seitz shot it and Edith Head designed the costumes.

Noir City: Hollywood, the longest-running film noir festival in Los Angeles, is now in its 19th year. For 2017, the Film Noir Foundation and the American Cinematheque will present a program “replicating the movie-going experience of that time – 10 double bills, each featuring a major studio A picture paired with a shorter B movie … showcased exactly as it was back in the day.”

In Friday’s B-movie slot is the well regarded “Quiet Please, Murder” (1942, John Larkin), which stars the inimitable George Sanders as a con artist.

The Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller will introduce the lineup. There’s a cocktail hour between films for all ticket buyers, sponsored by Clarendelle inspired by Haut-Brion and Teeling Irish Whiskey.

Compiled by Muller, Alan K. Rode and Gwen Deglise, the festival runs through April 2.

In honor of the film and the fest, we are re-running an earlier review of “This Gun for Hire.”

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Happy birthday, Veronica Lake!

Veronica Lake in black dressShe was born today in 1922 in Brooklyn. Lake was almost as popular for her sexy long peek-a-boo hairstyle as she was for the film noir titles she starred in with Alan Ladd: “This Gun for Hire,” “The Glass Key,” “The Blue Dahlia” and “Saigon.”

She died July 7, 1973.

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Noir City festival returns to Chicago with darkness aplenty

The Music Box Theatre will host Noir City: Chicago.

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City festival returns for the fourth time to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, from Aug. 17-23.

The FNF’s Alan K. Rode and noted writer/historian Foster Hirsch will share hosting duties. All titles are presented on the big screen in glorious 35mm prints.

This year’s lineup looks great! Highlights include:

William Castle’s “Undertow” (1949), which was shot on location in the Windy City.

Alan Ladd x 2: “The Great Gatsby” (1949, Elliot Nugent) and “This Gun for Hire” (1942, Frank Tuttle).

Jean Negulesco’s “Three Strangers” (1946) starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Screenplay by John Huston and Howard Koch.

Cornell Woolrich x 3: Noir master Robert Siodmak directs Ella Raines and Elisha Cook Jr. in “Phantom Lady” (1944). Based on a Woolrich novel. “Black Angel” (1946, Roy William Neil) More suspense from Woolrich, this time starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Broderick Crawford and Peter Lorre. “The Window” (1949) Ted Tetzlaff directs an adaptation of Woolrich’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Virginia Mayo and James Cagney star in "White Heat," directed by Raoul Walsh.

Phil Karlson’s “99 River Street” (1953) Evelyn Keyes comes to the rescue when her buddy John Payne, a washed-up boxer, is framed for the murder of his wife.

Robert Ryan x 2: “Caught” (Max Ophuls, 1949) and “On Dangerous Ground” (Nicholas Ray, 1952).

Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, Robert Aldrich) Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides adapted Mickey Spillane’s detective novel to create this film noir classic. Ralph Meeker stars.

White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh) James Cagney is unforgettable in one of noir’s greatest roles, outlaw and killer Cody Jarrett. The superb cast also includes Edmond O’Brien, Virginia Mayo, Steve Cochran and Margaret Wycherly as the bad-ass mama at the core of it all.

Also, be sure to check out the FNF’s Marsha Hunt interview. The actress joined Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode at the 14th annual Noir City: Hollywood for a rare screening of “Mary Ryan, Detective” (1950, Abby Berlin). Hunt discussed her work with Fred Zinnemann, Jules Dassin, Orson Welles and others. I watched the event live and it’s terrific – it’s hard to believe she is 94! You can watch the interview at the FNF Video Archives.

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‘Hangover Square’ is a deliciously warped little gem

Hangover Square/1945/20th Century-Fox/77 min.

Linda Darnell

Last Thursday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, I saw “Hangover Square” from 1945 and what a deliciously warped little gem it is! (It was on a double bill with “Psycho” as part of the series honoring composer Bernard Herrmann.) “Hangover Square” stars the spellbindingly sexy and exquisitely stunning Linda Darnell as Netta Longdon, an ambitious music-hall singer in need of good songs.

Enter Laird Cregar playing composer George Harvey Bone, a sweet, lumbering Teddy Bear of a guy. Both are residents of a fictitious square in London, a curious Hollywood-esque dwelling where almost every voice you hear has an American accent.

Femme fatale Netta easily wraps George Bone around her little finger, distracting him from writing more serious music and using him as a babysitter for her long-haired, evil-eyed cat. Of course she has a menacing, demanding cat – who else is going to make sure George gets the songs done by jumping into his lap and glaring at him? Not Netta, she’s out on the town every night.

There’s just one small snag. George has a strange condition, stemming from overwork, that causes him to black out and possibly become violent. Possibly not, but he doesn’t remember. We learn early on in the film that George is on Scotland Yard’s radar, having been examined by Dr. Allan Middleton (the delightfully smarmy George Sanders), but he’s not deemed to be a threat to anyone. Besides, George is adored by the upper crust Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) and his pretty daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe).

But that was before Netta and her cat entered the picture and insisted George work his chubby fingers to the, well, bone. Strain + strange condition does not bode well for this ill-fated pair. George takes advantage of a Guy Fawkes bonfire to cover up the crime he commits before blithely succumbing to the ravaging flames of another fire.

Skillfully directed by John Brahm (he also directed Cregar in “The Lodger,” 1944) and gorgeously shot by Joseph LaShelle, “Hangover Square” is full-on film noir, even though the story is set around 1900. The shadow-drenched urban nightscapes, themes of alienation and sexual obsession, and Herrmann’s edgy score draw us into the dark, ambiguous, dangerously skewed noir world.

Barré Lyndon wrote the screenplay, based on a 1941 novel by English writer Patrick Hamilton, who also wrote the plays “Gaslight” and “Rope,” which became Hollywood classics. “Gaslight” was directed by George Cukor (1944) and “Rope” by Alfred Hitchcock (1948). In the novel, George Bone was a borderline alcoholic and the story was set in 1939.

But perhaps most chilling is the off-screen story of the stars. [Read more…]

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Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd are smokin’ in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more…]

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‘This Gun for Hire’ quick hit

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

This role hardly qualifies Veronica Lake as a femme fatale. She’s loyal to her man, works for a living and helps out Uncle Sam. Shocker! That said, this movie is still full-on noir and Lake, who blazes a trail with hitman Alan Ladd, completely captivates. Laird Cregar delights, as always, as the peppermint-popping heavy. Based on a Graham Greene novel; directed by Frank Tuttle.

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Film noir’s feline fatales, tough tom cats: A new feature

Of the many visual symbols in film noir, the cat is one of the most elegant and expressive. Sitting in a doorway, watching and waiting, or sprawled contentedly on a chaise longue, these haughty creatures convey the quintessential femme fatale attitude: “If I deign to take you on, I’ll win.”
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Cats are smart, nimble and fastidious. They spend hours grooming themselves and, unlike dogs, they have no work ethic. Enough said. In between doting on my cat, I’ve done a little research so I can start a new feature on the most famous kitties in film noir.
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The Cats in “This Gun for Hire” 1942
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Names: Fluffy Taylor and Tab Burton
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Character Names: The Stray, Toughie

The happy Hollywood couple

Bios: “Cats bring you luck,” says Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) in 1942’s “This Gun for Hire.” Raven’s first good-luck charm is The Stray (Fluffy Taylor), a petite, violet-eyed beauty, who wanders through his window first thing in the morning. Despite being a cold-hearted hitman, Raven gives her milk and protects her from the nasty maid, Anna (Pamela Blake).

The second “charm” is a tomcat named Toughie (Tab Burton). But Toughie doesn’t fare as well as The Stray. Philip Raven happens to be a psychopath and he turns on Toughie in a deadly betrayal. Well, maybe the name Raven didn’t bode too well for feline friendship. (Off screen, however, Burton and Ladd were great chums. It was Ladd’s first major movie role and he welcomed Burton’s advice on acting.)
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And contrary to some accounts, the feline stars of “This Gun for Hire” never once had a catfight on the set. Just the opposite: While working together on this film, British imports Taylor and Burton fell madly in love. Seven years Burton’s junior, Taylor had been an established star in England since kittenhood.
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Burton was born in Wales and studied acting at Oxford University. Following their U.S. debut in “This Gun for Hire,” the pair soon became the “it” couple among Hollywood’s feline set, co-starring in “Catopatra,” “The Taming of the Mew” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Puss?” They were also known for their lavish, jet-set, cream-and-catnip lifestyle.
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They married in 1945, divorced in 1955, remarried in 1957 and divorced for a second time in 1962. After they finally parted, Burton’s career faltered and he passed away in 1964. When Burton died, the ever-popular Taylor referred to him as “the love of my life and my very best friend.”
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As their close friend Morris once said of them: “He gave her class. She gave him sex.” And they gave each other Fancy Feast Salmon.
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