Guns for Hire?
I’m a great pulp fiction/Noir fan, but I’d never heard of This Gun For Hire, because it sounded like an ad for a hitman. The original title of the novel by Graham Greene that inspired the film, published before World War Two, was A Gun for Sale. The revised title certainly got my attention. A title has to be catchy and should encapsulate the essential theme or point of the story. In this case, it sounds like it’s about a man who advertises his availability as a hitman.
I’d heard of Graham Greene, of course, but I had never associated him with anything remotely close to pulp fiction. His repertoire was huge, and only some of his output was of the thriller variety.
Greene’s novel dates back to 1936. Once I became enamored of Noir (see my blog, How I Became a Noir Fan), I began to notice the incredible number of films shot over time in the Noir genre. One of those titles that just leaped out at me was This Gun For Hire, and it was a while before I put the novel and the movie together. I just hadn’t pictured the British writer as having anything to do with Noir. He didn’t write that way, of course, consciously, that is, in any genre. But with this novel – and there were a few others – he definitely conquered it. The proof of that is that several of his novels were picked up by Hollywood.
There are many sites where plot outlines of the novel and the film can be found. My interest is simply in unearthing the meaning behind the story, it’s theme. Here’s one link.
I saw the movie before I read the novel. And I wasn’t disappointed, as sometimes is the case when a film adaptation just doesn’t seem to work. In this case, I was impressed with how the scriptwriter transferred the settings and characters from pre-war England, to the then modern-day Los Angeles, with Alan Ladd as the star.
No place on earth could be less like foggy England, in the Midlands belt, than Los Angeles in the 1940s, yet scriptwriters Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett made it happen.
Abuse of Power
It might not look like it at first glance, but despite the story’s genre-specific style, that’s exactly what the story is about. The abuse of power is revealed on several levels. First, there’s the hitman himself. The main character, whose name is James Raven, is a professional, a man with no feelings. In an early scene that must have made audiences shudder back in the day, in which he cold-blodedly assassinates a furtive blackmailer and his “secretary,” we are privy to a moment of pure suspense as Raven (in the movie played by Alan Ladd) digs gently into his slim briefcase while smiling strangely at his victim, and pulls out a handgun. His eyes are as blank as an empty canvas. With the same deliberation and efficiency, he dispatches the woman who has taken refuge in the kitchen. He shoots her through the closed door.
Power Elite vs The Rest of Us
The power in the narrative emanates from the top, Raven’s assignment just that, a job to do. The rest of us – the underdogs, the working stiffs, the secretaries and the police – are beneath him.
The first line in the novel tells us about Raven: “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job. You had to be careful. You had to use your brains. It was not a question of hatred.”
Raven has been commissioned to assassinate someone. In the novel, it’s a foreign minister whose violent death is supposed to trigger a European war. Perhaps Greene was thinking of the assassination of the Austrian prince in 1914. The film sticks closely to the plot, only changing the background and circumstances to match the dictates of the medium.
If we think of Raven as an archetype for either narrative, we can easily follow the trail of the story from the beginning when he first gets his assignment, to the inevitable end of his own violent death. Raven is the instrument of death, the assassination, the act of a mere cipher in a trade for money. And when Raven discovers that he has been hoodwinked by his employer, he sets out on a path of revenge. Despite our reluctance to accept this flawed man as the hero of the story, we can’t help but root for him when he discovers that he has been paid in money that was previously marked as stolen, by the man who hired him. It is this plot turn that sets up the revenge scenario, when Raven goes after him; it eventually leads him to the boss of it all, a vague, mysterious individual, in the movie played by Tully Marshall, a silent star who died shortly after the making of this picture.
Tully Marshall died in 1943, one year after the release of the film, and the casting must have seemed like a godsend. If ever there was a man who must have looked like the perfect fit, it was this actor, born a year before the end of the American Civil War. Wheelchair-bound in the movie and looking very corpse-like playing a malevolent old man spitting hate, Tully fulfilled the role of the boss, Alvin Brewster admirably (in the novel, the original name was Sir Marcus). Marshall’s acting is so realistically powerful that on first viewing the film I was struck by how visceral his interpretation of the character was. Getting angrier and more hostile as the penultimate scene unravels, Brewster froths and spits and delegates from his chair, waving his limp arms in the air, defiant till the end, and when he sets off a deadly projectile at Raven, a fountain pen of all things loaded with poison as venomous as he is, he himself dies, from shock.
In the movie, and in the novel, we don’t know who the enemy is. Raven is small potatoes, but we put our money on him because he is on a mission to get justice, even though it’s in the form of revenge. As viewers or readers, we empathize with him because he is the instrument that restores the balance of power, at least for that moment, and sacrifices his life, in the end, for love. Meeting Ellen Graham (Anne Crowder in the novel), changes him.
Although it’s too late for Raven to live a different life, a better life, he is vindicated in the end, as Ellen (Veronica Lake, in the film) smiles at him forgivingly when he’s in his final moments. Having tackled the real enemy of society, he has shown himself to have real courage. He has stood up for something, and so in the parlance of writers of fiction, this is a story of character regeneration.
Revenge is Mine – And It’s Sweet
The story, in both its forms, contains a lot more than is stated here. My goal was merely to open for discussion my own theory about the theme, as mentioned in a previous paragraph. The irony here is inescapable. The hitman who is hired by the big boss to kill a perceived enemy, in the final denouement is ultimately discovered and killed, himself. Revenge is sweet, but even sweeter if the instrument of corruption and greed turns on its master, like an obedient dog that has been beaten into submission, which at last bares its nasty teeth and attacks the hand that feeds it.
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