Tuesday, 15 March 2011

This Gun for Hire (1942) - A very sinister undercurrent of violence

Viewing context:
Film Noir box set. After having seen some truly great films so far (Out of The Past, The Blue Dahlia, Killers and Double Indemnity), this one didn't quite have the same impact or cohesion.

Directed by Frank Tuttle. I haven't seen anything else from him but it looks like he was much better known for directing comedies. Screenplay by Albert Maltz, who seems to have a more interesting resume, in the Western genre with the Jimmy Stewart fronted Broken Arrow and the Clint Eastwood vehicle Two Mules for Sister Sara and the intriguing noir-looking Naked City (will track this one down). He was joined by another genre film writer, W.R. Burnett (Scarface and The Asphalt Jungle).

What happened:
A pretty intense, morally ambiguous hitman/gangster-type, Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) kills a couple'a people in order to acquire something for his paymaster. After then being set up by said paymaster, he goes after him, to do what a hitman does best. On route (literally on the train - symbolically representing a chronotope of transition) he comes across Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), an entertainer/magician recently hired by Raven's former employer and to top off the string of convenient coincidences she is engaged to the detective that is hunting Raven.

What I liked:
genuinely sinister violent undertone: Individual shots caught the darkness and the stark contrast representing the fragmented sinisterness of the society depicted. This added to the already strong undercurrent of violence. Not cartoony/Hollywood violence of spectacle, but a really sinister and brutal violence sweltering under society. This was introduced immediately as Raven has no qualms about killing the innocent, unarmed female bystander on that opening job.

What unimpressed:
Back heavy: The first hour or so of the film didn't reveal anything, nor did it have me particularly intrigued as to what may be revealed. Once Raven's upbringing had been revealed and the unpatriotic business transactions that the antagonists were committing were uncovered, the film shifted a gear or two. This just seemed like it was all tacked onto the end though, with the rest of it sort of just plodding through the motions.
Disjointed editing: The editing was unforgivably jarring. I can only imagine it must have been intentional considering its consistency, but frequently when cutting from a medium shot to a closer shot, the characters would almost be in a completely different positions, looking in a different directions or sometimes just appear as if they are in a different scene altogether. It was really strange. It could have been an intentional attempt to heighten the uneasiness or emphasise distraction and that things aren't as they seem, but to be honest it just seemed a bit sloppy. The weird thing is though, that I never really notice this, but it has happened three times this month - see American History X and 25th Hour (once I post them).

Patriotic sociopaths are OK?: You can be a cold blooded sociopath, so long as you are a patriotic one? That's what impression I got anyway, but as eluded to earlier, the end seemed a little shabbily grafted on, so don't know how much to read into that.
A Hollywood film that really attacked the free market: One thing that was very explicit though was the commentary on the free market post WW2. This was a time when central planning and some form of communal responsibility and left leaning sensibility was actually in vogue in the US (as brief a period as this turned out to be). The film exposed the amorality of free market capitalism, while exploiting the nationalistic sentiment that would have been prominent throughout the country, by showing how these individuals will do anything to make a profit, including directly dealing with the enemy of the time. The way the film exploited this nationalistic sentiment to bull up the villainous nature of these free marketeers compared to the revealed patriotism of Raven problematically made his killing of innocents and woman-slapping appear acceptable.

Scene of the film:
The reveal of Raven's troubled upbringing, showing how broken homes - of which there will be many following the war - and violence - that the world had just witnessed plenty of - harbours sociopaths and criminality. Not only did these insights open up (belatedly kickstart) the narrative, but it was performed intensely by Ladd.

Veronica Lake: Apart from that one scene from Ladd, which was the most compellingly acted scene in the film, Lake was much more consistent, fluent, natural and engaging.

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