Archive for This Gun for Hire

Run and Gun

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2019 by dcairns

Humm, thought I’d already published this…

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THIS GUN FOR HIRE is, on the one hand, the first version of Melville’s LE SAMOURAI. It’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (retitled This Gun for Hire in America: the credits seek to reinforce this literary connection even as the screenplay departs from the book in key ways). And a star-making turn for Alan Ladd, who is very, very good in it, in a seriously unusual leading man/villain role. Unusual when Delon did it, pretty well unique when Laddie took it on.

Greene was always rather snooty about the film, criticising the decision to make Veronica Lake’s character a singing magician, as if that was too ridiculous for words. But he’s the one who had the girlfriend of the detective hunting a killer happen to get on a train with the killer and end up kidnapped by him. Screenwriters W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar source novels) and Albert Maltz do try to iron that wrinkle out by making Lake also a secret agent, so that both she and Ladd are trailing the same man (lovely Laird Cregar).

But the first ten minutes of the film are worth concentrating on, I think. Director Frank Tuttle, assisted by ace noirmeister John F. Seitz as cameraman, creates a whole succession of iconic images —

Ladd is supposed to have a childhood injury, a badly-healed broken wrist, a good, ugly makeup effect by Wally Westmore. Ladd and Tuttle do everything they possibly can to make you notice the affected limb in this sequence — and none of it works.

It’s very strangely. I think it’s because it’s simply too soon for us to be interested in this man’s wrist. In a wide shot, we notice that Ladd carries his arm oddly, but we don’t perceive the jutting bone. In close-ups of hand action, we notice what his hands are DOING, not what they or their attendant arms are like. Later, a newspaper prints a picture of his arm and we go UGH! And next time we see him, we notice it.

I think the boxy low angles, emphasizing the ceiling, feed directly into Melville’s rather jerky trombone shot which opens LE SAMOURAI, in which Delon’s basement apartment seems to expand and contract. This happens because (a) Melville had decided that his protagonist, “Jeff Costello,” is schizophrenic, and (b) he hasn’t done any actual research about what that means.

Alan Ladd’s character is at least as schizophrenic as Delon’s. In the conventional, incorrect sense of having a divided personality. We’re about to see Delon carry out a hit, and here we see him going over the paperwork and preparing his handgun — and we know he’s a hood because cops don’t live in apartments like this in movies, and who else carries a gun?

Then he tenderly feeds a kitten.

The San Francisco newspaper is a nice scene-setting detail, but do we really notice it in the midst of our “Awwwlookadakitty!”* moment? Doesn’t matter, detail is both good and necessary. Anyway, whenever I use the Pauline Kael “we,” to talk about what does or doesn’t get noticed, remember that on the big screen, “we” would notice a lot more.

Anyway, having the tough, crooked anti-hero give milk/cream to a cat is a Sternberg moment — the Paramount thriller is still, in 1942, indebted to UNDERWORLD, whose screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by this sentimental detail. Sternberg claimed credit for the idea, saying he wanted to show his hero/villain had a good heart, and implying that such broad brushstrokes were essential if you wanted to get through to the mainstream audience. He was sort of contemptuous of the audience and the approach, but not of his own cleverness in manipulating both.

Enter the slattern! A memorable turn by Pamela Blake, later a wide-eyed B-western heroine. Would it be too much to ask for a whole movie about this vulgar bitch-goddess. She enters, is mean to the cat, and Ladd slaps her and tears her top (adding a sexual tinge to his violence which doesn’t mean seem to mean anything, it’s just for titillation).

So we learn that ordinary people are nasty, and that this killer is in a way more sensitive than regular civilians.

Ladd leaves, there’s a quick exterior of his rooming house, the movie resists the impulse to show us Those Damn Hills, and then Ladd has a disturbing encounter with a little disabled girl in the stair of his target.

She’s meant to remind us of him, because of his wrist, but the effect is subtler, pleasingly mysterious, because “we” haven’t noticed his damn wrist.

The target: initially suspicious, then quite friendly. He offers Ladd coffee and cookies. Ladd actually eats the cookie of the man he’s about to snuff! That’s a clear violation of the rules of hospitality. If you’re going to kill a man you have to refuse all cookies.

Unexpectedly, a woman is present: the target’s “secretary.” The headline will read CHEMIST AND WOMAN MURDERED. Ladd is discomfited by this complication, but is able to complete his appointed task when the squeal of the kettle summons the “secretary” away.

*Copyright Glenn Kenny.

It’s another great room. Production design is by an uncredited Lynd Ward according to IMDb, who provide no other credits for this mystery man. Art direction is credited to the usual Hans Dreier & Robert Usher. This is a more salubrious joint than Ladd’s flophouse, but John Seitz’s low-key lighting makes all the settings a bit grubby. Even Veronica Lake’s eventual appearance can’t illuminate every shadow.

Look, the wrist! But I’m telling you, we don’t clock it yet. The blackmailing chemist target asks to be paid, and Ladd reaches in his briefcase, where we saw him put his gun.

This moment is extended for suspense purposes, and we get a little smile from Ladd. He’s enjoying, in a slightly sexy way, the feeling of power and the dramatic irony of this cookie-dispensing chemist smiling in anticipation of getting paid when in reality he’s going to get a slug in the ticker. It’s a VERY unsympathetic bit of characterisation, but of course it positions Ladd right alongside us, the audience, in pleasurable anticipation of a less attractive character’s demise at the hands of a leading man.

The inevitable occurs.

The “secretary” appears in the kitchen doorway.

“They said he’d be alone,” says Ladd. His tone is quite harsh, but the impulse to make such a remark is a sort of apologetic one. An attempt to explain why your regrettable death must now be implemented. It’s like in GROSSE POINTE BLANK. “Why are you doing this?” is answered with “It’s not me.” Which does nothing. It does not reassure. It’s more upsetting than anything else. But the impulse is apologetic, and so the audience notes that in the character’s favour.

The “secretary” retreats to the kitchen, presumably blocks the door with her body, and Ladd shoots her through the door. The fact that we don’t get a shot from inside the kitchen denies us a view of her terror and denies us a little bit of empathy with the “wrong” character.

Ladd forces the door open to check her (unseen) body, with a series of grisly nudges later borrowed by Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE (Mandrake/Ripper sequence).

Ladd’s mission also includes picking up the documents involved in the blackmail scheme he’s just Gordian-unknotted. Hilariously, David Buttolph’s score goes into a kind of Morse Code at this point, because there are dots and dashes in the nonsense chemical formulae.

Ladd leaves, and has another Disturbing Encounter with the little girl. She asks him to retrieve a dropped ball. (What kind of monster gives a disabled child a ball to play with?) He pauses, reaches for his briefcase, then retrieves the ball (religiose music).

So we learn that he has a conscience, or a weakness. He’s wicked enough to CONSIDER killing a little disabled girl, because he knows she’s a witness. But good enough to reject the idea AND give her her ball back. (She’s only going to lose it again.)

Net result: hey, we LIKE this cold-blooded assassin!

That’s how it works, folks.

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Chemist and Woman Murdered

Posted in FILM with tags , , on May 7, 2019 by dcairns

From THIS GUN FOR HIRE. I love newspaper mock-ups. They’re usually like a big headline EARTH INVADED! and then lots of smaller stories like FARMERS PROTEST TAX HIKE.

CHEMIST AND WOMAN MURDERED is a little ambiguous: are we talking about two people, or one female chemist? “I admired her as a chemist and a woman.” But no, it’s a “couple slain” kind of thing.

KILLER AT LARGE, shrieks the sub-head. Which we know to be true. And he’s Alan Ladd.

What’s unusual is how the other stories seem to tie together.

BIDS GIVEN ON BRIDGE PROJECT. Hmm. Maybe not.

THREE PERSONS DIE IN CRASH; Passengers Hasty Exit from Blazing Street Car; FIRE DESTROYS STATE ARSENAL; FIREMEN, 18, HURT AS ENGINE UPSETS.

Is this all about a single terrible conflagration? Perhaps Chernobyl?

Besides this, the puzzling BANKERS URGED TO SEE SELVES AS PUBLIC SEES THEM may refer to the Tully Marshall character we meet later? Is he a banker? It feels like he LIVES in a bank.

And, finally, NEW LIVING BUDDHA REPORTED DISCOVERED add a welcome touch of the bizarre. Possibly a reference to Veronica Lake, whose smile projects and inspires serenity.

Tuttle Wash-Outs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2018 by dcairns

A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956), starring Daisy Clover, Lars Thorwald, ‘Fats’ Murdock, Quatermass McGinty and Steve Austin’s boss. A relatively late Frank Tuttle film.

Really poor. David Dortort’s script slaloms around anything potentially interesting. And smashes into any opportunity to make the characters seem dumb or unpleasant. Unconscious misanthropy? At any rate, a psycho mother’s boy abducts a young girl and we never learn anything about his mental problems, while the cops proceed to follow a trail of lucky coincidences to allow them to crack the case while being as stupid as possible.

We begin on lover’s lane, with an intense voice-over from an uncredited Alan Ladd (Tuttle made him a star), commenting on the activities, stressing their innocence but somehow making them seem really dirty because of his Dramatic Intensity, which also makes him sound like a skeevy prowler. “Kids always have things to talk over, questions about life.”

Raymond Burr snatches teenage Natalie Wood; her cop father, dyspeptic ulcer Edmond O’Brien, teams up with her boyfriend Richard Anderson and A,N. Other Cop Brian Donlevy and they drive around desperately while sniping at each other. Eventual rescue near some kilns.

Tuttle’s great compositional skill is not in evidence, unless he’s enjoying the contrasting body types as much as I am. Burr’s large adult son character is an amusingly lumpen form to postulate next to the tiny, birdlike Wood, and the trio of O’Brien, Donlevy and Anderson create a vaudevillian panoply whenever united in the same frame. If you posed a bag of cat food, a box of cat food, and turkey leg together, you’d get roughly the same effect and twice the charisma.

Nobody is on form: the script encourages them to be the worst possible version of themselves. I love Natalie, but wouldn’t have cared if she’d ended up in a fridge here. Burr’s Lonesome Lenny routine is a screaming embarrassment. There are plenty of movies where I can forget that O’Brien was a struggling alcoholic, that Orson Welles called him “a magnificent ruin,” and that he traveled with a suitcase full of meat and light bulbs. This isn’t one. And Donlevy is equally grating and artificial: if it weren’t for him being a cuboid and O’Brien being totally shapeless, you couldn’t tell them apart.

They all drive around in a car a lot and you wish they’d give Anderson the wheel, because he only has concussion.

The best bit was the police getting a tip-off from Burr’s domineering mother because he’s out late and there’s no pie in the house.

Strangely enough, Raymond Burr dated Natalie Wood for a while.

“This one’s no good too!” declared Fiona after ten minutes of HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955). Tuttle goes into super widescreen for this one. Stars Lucky Jordan, Dr. Clitterhouse, Tess Millay, Constable Kockenlocker, Captain Escobar and Ann Darrow. Poor Alan Ladd looks puffy and out of sorts: these movies both feel like episodes of some grisly Alcohol Watch. Edward G. Robinson is just old, but can still exude malevolence and smoke a cigar at the same time. He looks more and more like a Winsor McCay drawing, only not in blackface.

The climax scales new heights of bathos — a fist fight between Ladd and Robinson. Both are prematurely aged but Robinson, at only sixty-two, is an actual little old man. Ladd is little too, but he seems like a monster for slugging this geriatric case. Then Ladd has to do a dramatic leap and it’s a tragi-comic belly-flop. As is the film.

   

It’s just DULL. The title is good (and is the name of a fine blog). Nothing else lives up to it. Tuttle’s work is so lacking energy and impact, it’s amazing he worked again: but he did A CRY IN THE NIGHT the very next year.

Look like I have to head into his past to find stuff of value. Not only does THIS GUN FOR HIRE include a ton of marvelous noir imagery, but its opening gave Jean-Pierre Melville LE SAMOURAI. And MISS BLUEBEARD features a reel of the best bedroom farce ever shot. So he was good, very good, to begin with. I think cooperating with HUAC broke something inside. Recommendations for obscure, good Tuttle films will be gratefully received.