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This Gun for Hire, directed in 1942 by Frank Tuttle, is a film rendition of Graham Greene’s novel, “A Gun for Sale”. This Gun for Hire, shares Greene’s dark and disturbing vision of the fate of humanity.
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Raven, the anti-hero, is a cold-hearted killer, a professional hitman bound to a role as a lifetime killing machine. For most of the movie, Raven does not show any signs of humanity. He is incapable of caring for others and simply does not care even about his own life. This is explicitly illustrated in the opening scene when he grabs a little girl by the collar, suggesting that he will kill her because she is witness to his crime of murder.
Alan Ladd, who plays Raven, delivers his lines in a monotone dead-pan style. Ladd’s stylistic dead-pan speech adds to the intensity of his portrayal of a distant Raven, lacking in emotion, thus incapable of experiencing human compassion. Raven’s character exemplifies an alienated individual dislocated and isolated from society.
The scenic moody lighting, as well as, the use of sharp camera angles accentuates Raven’s isolation. In this manner, a camera is a tool that aids the audience to be capable of experiencing life from Raven’s perspective. The camera allows the audience to peer outwards through his eyes, while simultaneously, via close-ups, glimpse into his soul. Both vantage points remain blatantly grim. Meanwhile, dark shadowy lines that span the wall behind Raven create a feeling of entrapment and doom.
While he seemingly cares about Ellen, it is evident that his concern is merely a reaction to her being nice to him. In fact, his chronic hunger for love is personified in his relationship with Ellen. In the end, on his death bed, he is consumed with knowing whether he “did well by her”. Hence, pleasing Ellen becomes his only salvation because he believes that in pleasing her, he has won her over and satisfied his quest for love.
The cat representing an animal fighting for its own survival is used as a symbol mirroring Raven’s profound struggle. Sporadically, we see glimpses of Raven’s potential for sentimental attachment as exhibited by his affection towards cats. Even so, we later witness Raven able to destroy the one thing he cares about when he eventually kills a cat that crosses his path. Although he seems to possess a potential for caring about cats, we learn that his attention is motivated by a superstitious belief that they are a sign of luck. In fact, the cat is the only source of aid or rescue that Raven senses. And even so, he destroys it.
His belief that cats bring upon luck is evidence of Raven’s fatalistic attitude. In other words, his fate is left up to something as arbitrary as a feline. He does not believe that there is anything directly in his control that could turn his fate around. Lacking a sense of responsibility for his actions, he does not see the connection between his behavior and his perpetual state of despair. People, places, and things, Raven believes, are exactly what they have been, what they are, and what they will be, without a chance of transformation. In this manner, Raven leaves his fate in the hands of a random chance of a cat crossing his path to bring upon change (or, luck).
Throughout the film, Raven’s psychic wounds are symbolized by his physical scar on his wrist left there by the flat iron used by his aunt to beat him. This burn wound ironically becomes a means for the police in their manhunt for him which suggests further that we are marked by our past. The screenplay explains the “chief source” of Raven’s “psychological trauma” as revealed in the line “What’s the use. [There is] nothing I can do” while describing a recurring dream in which a “tyrannical woman beat him as a child” (Coleman, 2009). The scene sums up the nihilistic attitude that is inheritable characteristic of Film Noir and encapsulates the thematic content of this film.
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Only after he reveals bits of his childhood to Ellen do we realize that his entrapment is linked to a past of abuse and neglect. If this movie belonged to any other genre except Film Noir, then this psychological disclosure might have been a moment of character transformation for Raven. Changing from a chronic evil doer to becoming a reformed man would not be in keeping with the thematic message of this film which professes that we never escape our past. The following monologue as delivered by Raven provides insight into the origins of his spiritual, mental, and physical disrepair:
“She used to beat me – to get the bad blood out of me, she said. She beat me from the time I was three to when I was fourteen. One day she caught me reaching for a piece of chocolate – she was saving it for a cake – a crummy piece of chocolate. She hit me – with a red-hot flat iron! Smashed my wrist with it. I grabbed a knife – I let her have it! In the throat! They stuck a label on me: Killer. Shoved me into a reform school and they beat me there too. But I’m glad I killed her. What’s the use? Nothing I can do.”
Like the novel, this film discloses an existential examination of man’s infinite isolation and alienation. Further, the plotline, character development, symbolism, and quintessential noir lighting techniques, support the thematic commentary submitting thatwe are all victims of our past, and as such, our fate is pre-determined by our early experiences. This grim outlook professes that any possibility of deliverance, redemption, or chance of successfully escaping our past is non-existent.
My Criteria for Quality in Film
- A movie is more likely to be a good representation of a specific genre if the movie sets the precedent for other movies that follow in the same genre.
- A movie is more likely to be a pleasant watch if the lead actors’ performances complement each other.
- A characteristic of high-quality cinema is the layered storyline that helps highlight the different levels of good and evil in the world.
- An excellent movie is an appropriate mix of different elements such as romance, action, comedy, and suspense.
- A movie that employs the techniques of cinematography to create a dramatic visual effect is more likely to resonate with the audience.
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