Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire
Alan Ladd as Philip Raven, cold-blooded, cat-loving contract killer
San Francisco to Los Angeles, Spring 1942
Film: This Gun for Hire
Release Date: April 24, 1942
Director: Frank Tuttle
Costume Designer: Edith Head
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
I had already been planning to write about This Gun for Hire this month when I realized that today would have been the 100th birthday of Veronica Lake, who was born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1922 with the decidedly less glamorous name of Constance Ockelman. Lake was still in her teens when cast in her first starring role in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), the success of which convinced Paramount to cast her in their upcoming thriller, which would also be a vehicle to launch their next up-and-comer, Alan Ladd.
Despite Ladd’s “introducing” credit that buries him in the cast roll, the stories centers around his eponymous hired gun: Philip Raven, whom we meet immediately at the start of the movie as he wakes from a nap in a San Francisco flophouse with a tinkling piano downstairs. After reviewing the details of the blackmailing chemist he’s been hired to kill, he loads his pistol, completes dressing, and sets out to complete the hit… though not without stopping to attend to the thirsty cat purring outside his window.
Once the job is complete, Raven meets with his shifty employer, the excessively garrulous Willard Gates (a perfectly blustering Laird Cregar), who slyly taunts that, should he have underpaid Raven for his services, it’s not like the hitman could go to the police, a dimwitted threat to make to a professional killer who deadpans in response “I’m my own police” while suggestively spinning a pocket knife between his fingers.
As the heat closes in, led by vacationing LAPD Lieutenant Michael Crane (Robert Preston), Raven escapes San Francisco to pursue to double-crossing Gates on a Southern Pacific train bound for Los Angeles. As luck or coincidence would have it, Raven’s seat-mate is Ellen Graham (Lake), the alluring nightclub performer who’s not only dating Lt. Crane but also has just been hired by Gates to work at his Neptune Club in L.A.
The train ride might have passed without incident, but Raven is so desperately down bad that he’s reduced to attempting to crib Ellen’s last five dollars from her purse when she goes to the bathroom, resulting in their conversation about his making the journey to seek revenge on “a fat man who likes peppermints” and ending with Raven falling asleep on her shoulder, bewildering Gates as he passes through their sleeper car. As the train pulls into the City of Angels, Raven enlists Ellen to help evade the police trap Gates had arranged at the station, though it wouldn’t be the last time as their fates are now woven together through a labyrinth of police dragnets and peppermints, hog-tying chauffeurs and hungry cats.
Based on Graham Greene’s 1936 novel A Gun for Sale but with a wartime-relevant subplot layered in, This Gun for Hire showcases many hallmarks of classic noir: the femme fatale, murky morals, brisk pacing with elements of humor, shadowy cinematography, and even its setting that travels between the noir-favorite cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. This Gun for Hire also marked the first of three successful screen pairings of Ladd and Lake, compatible not just for their chemistry but also their height as the 5’7″ Ladd could still stand tall over the 4’11” Lake.
In his explosive debut that contemporary critics likened to James Cagney’s impact in The Public Enemy, Ladd typified the film noir figure of the tough-talking gunman in a trench coat and fedora, kicking off a cinematic wave that would continue through contemporaries like Bogart and Mitchum and even be revived a quarter-century via Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s thematically similar Le Samouraï (1967).
What’d He Wear?
When costume Alan Ladd for his debut back in 1942, it could have hardly been considered groundbreaking to dress him in the standard businessman’s attire for a rainy day, yet This Gun for Hire seems to be the earliest prominent example of a film noir protagonist clad in the raincoat, fedora, and tie now considered a quintessential costume for the genre. Prolific costume designer Edith Head was credited only for Veronica Lake’s gowns, but it’s no surprise that someone of her cinematic stature would be connected to such an influential costume aesthetic.
The look is most commonly associated with Humphrey Bogart (via Casablanca, released months later, and The Big Sleep), Dana Andrews in Laura, and Robert Mitchum (specifically in Out of the Past), and there had been preceding films with hard-boiled types dressed in raincoats and hats, but Ladd was arguably the first hero—or anti-hero—from the movement typically considered film noir.
This Gun for Hire begins with Philip Raven’s alarm clock waking him up in time for another hit. He’s half-dressed—in his shirt-sleeves, loosened dark woolen knit tie, and trousers—and begins constructing the look that he would wear through almost the end of the movie. The light-colored shirt has a long, shaped “spearpoint” collar that was typical to this era, additionally detailed with button cuffs, plain front (no placket), and a breast pocket. Pockets on dress shirts were a primarily American phenomenon, with many anecdotal recollections from mid-century of men using the pocket for cigarette storage at a time when more than half the American male population smoked.
After tightening his tie and loading his pistol, Raven climbs out of bed and pulls on the single-breasted suit jacket to match his flat-front trousers. The color of the worsted wool suiting is lost to history, though it has a subtle pinstripe and likely falls somewhere along the traditional tailoring spectrum from the conservative business shades of dark gray and navy blue to earthier but still common likes like dark olive and brown.
The two-button jacket follows the typical lounge suit design that has hardly changed in 80 years, though tailored in accordance with trends of the early 1940s with wide, padded shoulders, ventless back, and a generous cut that looks especially roomy on Alan Ladd’s lean frame. The notch lapels, welted breast pocket, and straight jetted hip pockets should all be familiar elements to anyone at all versed in men’s fashion, and the sleeves are finished with two buttons on each cuff.
The flat-front suit trousers rise to Ladd’s natural waist, where they’re held up by a dark leather belt with a single-prong metal buckle. The trousers also have side pockets and turn-ups (cuffs) over the bottoms. His derby shoes present lighter than black, almost certainly suggesting brown leather uppers.
And now… Raven’s coat. Though it shares many characteristics with a trench coat, it lacks the defining belt as well as other details like epaulets (shoulder straps), storm flaps, and button-down pockets, so the most accurate description for this knee-length garment would simply be: raincoat.
The outer cloth is likely a khaki waterproofed gabardine with a checked lining. Aquascutum and Burberry both lined their outerwear in plaid, though the tartan plaid of Raven’s raincoat suggests the recognizable Burberry house check that had been in practice since at least the 1920s.
The double-breasted arrangement consists of eight total buttons—two columns of four, with four to close (8×4)—though it presents as a 6×3 when he wears the top undone and the lapels laid flat over the chest. The coat has raglan sleeves that allow greater arm movement, each finished at the cuff with a semi-strap that closes through a button. The coat also has a long single vent and hand pockets with welted openings on a vertical slant.
Raven completes his look with a wide-brimmed fedora that rarely leaves his head, made of a dark felt with a black grosgrain band.
After Raven and Ellen spend the night holed up on the train tracks, he gives her his coat and hat to serve as a decoy for the police to allow enough time for him to make his escape. The ruse briefly works, though losing this “suit of armor” that had protected him through the dragnets and duplicity to this point now leaves Raven more vulnerable as This Gun for Hire approaches its conclusion.
For the final act of This Gun for Hire, our hero hitman goes the Agent 47 route of knocking out a nemesis and taking his clothes—in this case, the uniform worn by Gates’ chauffeur Tommy (Marc Lawrence) as well as the convenient gas mask he was wearing due to the Nitro Chemical gas attack drill being conducted at the same time.
Strapped to his left wrist—the same with his telltale deformation—Raven wears a tank watch on a dark leather strap.
Apropos a title like This Gun for Hire, we see plenty of our hired gun’s go-to gat. Philip Raven carries a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, the venerated semi-automatic “pocket pistol” designed by John Browning just after the turn of the 20th century.
Colt introduced the pistol in 1903 chambered for the .32 ACP cartridge, expanded to include a .380 ACP variant five years later that fired slightly larger ammunition but at the expense of one round in the magazine. The Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless received its name from a smooth design that shrouded the hammer, making it less prone to snag on clothing when drawn. This factor, in addition to its reliable mechanics and concealment value, made it quickly popular among civilians and criminals alike, reported to be the pistol that bank robber John Dillinger carried in his trouser pocket when he was cornered and killed by federal agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago in July 1934.
Though many more sidearms had appeared on the market in the nearly forty years since its introduction, the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless remained both popular and in regular production at the start of the 1940s. It found its way into many movies, particularly effective in the hands of smaller-framed actors like Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd as it would look more proportional than the full-sized .45-caliber M1911A1 service pistol.
This Gun for Hire features considerably more sophisticated firearm handling than many movies of its era, which often featured a character simply pulling a gun when the drama called for it. For a 1940s movie, Philip Raven takes more of an active role with loading, reloading, and operating his guns, somewhat echoing how Ian Fleming would write about armament in the world of the literary James Bond beginning a decade later.
At the start of the movie, Raven picks up his Colt pistol and pulls back the slide, ostensibly to load a round into the chamber… though he holds it about a second too long before letting the slide snap back into place, all with his finger on the trigger, no less, all but assuring an accidental discharge given the hair-trigger on those single-action blowback pistols. I own a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless that was manufactured in 1917, and it’s certainly the one handgun from among my two dozen that I have to be the most cautious when handling as it lacks many of the integrated safety features or load indicators found on modern pistols.
When Raven draws a second gun while on the run with Ellen, she comments “you certainly pack an arsenal.” He responds that he took this second piece from Gates’ chauffeur Tommy, who seems to share Raven’s preference for the sleek Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless. The second pistol comes in handy when Raven gets cornered by a policeman who disarms him of one of his Colts without realizing he has a second one.
How to Get the Look
An iconic film noir look was born with Alan Ladd’s explosive debut in This Gun for Hire, establishing the stereotypical gun-toting protagonist in a raincoat and fedora.
- Khaki gabardine knee-length raincoat with double-breasted 8×4-button front, raglan sleeves with semi-tab buttoned cuffs, slanted hand pockets, and long single vent
- Dark pinstripe wool suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Flat-front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Off-white shirt with spearpoint collar, plain front, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Dark knitted wool tie with squared bottom
- Brown leather belt with metal single-prong buckle
- Brown leather derby shoes
- Dark felt wide-brimmed fedora with black grosgrain band
- Tank watch on dark leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, also currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Who trusts anybody?