Friday, February 24, 2006

55. A Hayride to Remember

Once more with feeling, my ignorance rewards me with bliss. It wasn't until the credits were rolling for This Gun for Hire (1942) that I realized it was Alan Ladd's starring debut. He had some bit parts here and there, but, as his biography on the Internet Movie Database points out, he had trouble getting his big break, between his height (5'6"; his nickname was "Laddie," and he once ran a hamburger stand called "Tiny's Patio") and his pale color (he had a tragic childhood, including malnourishment, injury, the death of his father when he was four and his mother's suicide--by ant poison, which the IMDB reports he witnessed--when he was a young man, shortly after Alan, Jr.'s birth). To quote Tom Kromer--as I have before, and will again, and again and again--in Waiting for Nothing, "She sure is a tough life, buddy."

But, because life insists on its horrifying ironies, it all paid off for him. He tested for Philip Raven, the hired gun of the title, and although he is fourth-billed (after Veronica Lake--more on her later--Robert Preston--a real treat in a weird way, if only for the reverse-reference-point provided by his greatest role, accompanied by, at last count, seventy-six trombones--and one Laird Cregar, an actor I had never seen before (and who would be dead in three years) but who is fascinating to watch, like Sydney Greenstreet's slick cousin), Ladd finds in Raven the perfect, sad recompense for all that loss.

In his first scene, Raven indulges a kitten, letting it into his apartment window and feeding it a saucer of milk. We can tell this is a common routine for the two of them. The girl comes in to clean up--he's in the next room--and she starts to shoo the kitten. Raven comes in and tears her dress and hits her. Later, hiding in an abandoned train car with Ellen Graham (Lake), he suffocates a cat whose meowing threatens to alert his pursuers. Again: His first hit is a blackmailer; his secretary is unexpectedly there, and he shoots her as well. Later, after Graham helps him escape from a train, he attempts to shoot her, too. This kind of thing goes on and on: Raven is a dead-eyed psychopath with a laddie's face, a tiny thing without a conscience--or at least no opportunity or desire to use it, until the end, when he saves Ellen, and is rewarded by dying in her arms.

Despite its awkward moments, I was pleasantly appalled by this film. (And I can no longer apologize for my oxymorons; as I wrote yesterday, they sustain me as I watch. I might not be able to otherwise.) It is the darkest noir I've seen in a while, save, perhaps, Force of Evil (1948) or D.O.A. (1950)--with a nod to Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in the Non-Crime Category. This Gun for Hire refuses to provide Raven with an escape. The only light that glimmers at the periphery comes from Veronica Lake's hair. I will not say anything new about these two; I just want to note how beautiful and pathetic they were together, little folk with strange eyes, a bit stiff, unless they were leaning against one another. What a relief it must've been to act side by side, no trenches or stepstools, cheek to tiny cheek. Here in this movie they meet, and I prefer to daydream about it as a kind of love at first sight. And the film supports this, even though they are not the couple here--that's Lake and Preston, with his little mustache and butterscotch voice--and despite the terror Raven instills in Ellen (after a particularly harrowing encounter with him, another character makes the delirious observation, "What's the matter with you? You look like you've been on a hayride with Dracula."). No, Ladd and Lake are Hansel and Gretel--except for wisecracks and the faint whiff of gunpowder. When she kisses his cheek, he sheds years of abuse and depravity, at least to love her enough to hold on to her hand, tight, lost babes in the noir woods.

As weird as the ending is--evil industrialist geezers keeling over (Tully Marshall in a slightly aphasic performance, muttering, obscenely slurping at milk-dipped crackers), double-crossing flunkies, gas masks and reckless gunplay; we catch the later-to-be-blacklisted, Hollywood-Ten Maltz red-handed (ha-ha), as the capitalist is unmasked as the real traitor to freedom--it is unimportant to my stunned yearning: I wanted Raven to get away, to kill everybody he had to and melt into the tangled mess of the stockyards, like something in a fable, a talking woodland creature--or cat?--that saves the lost child--and it is not just Lake, but himself who's lost; and simply being near her saves him. They take turns, in fact, saving one another, until I was exhausted by the steep climb to his partial redemption.

In the aforementioned abandoned railroad car, Raven delivers a monologue about his childhood, how his mother beat him all the time, even striking him with a "red-hot flatiron." And he kills her. Graham watches him, unable to respond, as he half-explains his psychosis. Knowing the outline of his life, I wonder how Ladd made it through that scene--or, actor to the core, how he was able to, as I hinted at earlier, make it pay off for him. And I almost cried over the little man, and it wasn't just his sad life, or Graham Greene and Albert Maltz's script--which has it moments of bludgeoning truth--but simply Ladd's posture, like a boy forced to recite, while the cat, unseen, dies beneath his hands, and Veronica Lake's dreamlike face--its planes too sharp, while the hair floats in natural soft-focus--stares like a thin moon at the damage, but manages to walk with him all the way, past the "dark, wet boughs" of that internal landscape and into cleaner air.

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