We have the cold, heartless killer who only shows affection for cats, and an upright and stout-hearted detective (whose entire personality consists of uprightedness and stout-heartedness, plus his love for his gal, of course). Laird Cregar also has a lot of fun as evil nightclub owner/national traitor Willard Gates.
But of course it is the iconic duo of Lake and Ladd that steal the show in the first of four films together. As nightclub singer Ellen Graham, Lake does what Lake always does: looks stunning, says the lines and leaves so much behind the eyes you can read anything you want into her. For Ladd, this was the movie that made him. A tough little misanthrope, Raven is a killer with few rules. But when he is hired to kill a blackmailer and retrieve a chemical formula, it all goes wrong: Raven was told he'd be alone ("I WAS TOLD HE'D BE ALONE!"), but the blackmailer's mistress is hanging around for kicks. Of course, her murder happens off screen (shot through a door) but from that moment we know that Raven's doom is set. Not even the coldest killer can shoot a woman and get away with it, not in 1942. The scene where he passes a cutesy little crippled girl on the stairs and we're unsure if he's capable of eliminating this witness as well is genuinely chilling. The fact that Gates pays him for the job in marked bills doesn't help him, of course. But it helps the plot along enormously.
Killing the mistress isn't actually Raven's first mistake, that was to slap around a housemaid at his hotel after she tried to kick out his cat. Having accidentally ripped her dress he gives her one of the marked bills for a new one (maybe he does just want to be loved), putting the cops on his case. From there Raven heads from SF to LA to get revenge against Brewster for the double cross, while Graham heads to LA to bring down Gates (because reasons, okay? Wave your hands and look the other way). In fact Graham and Raven sit right next to each other on the train which leads to misunderstandings galore. Because it could happen, right?
The plot does get a little ropey at times. Graham's intuitive leap that chemical formula = poison gas = sold to 'enemy' who will bomb the USA is, erm, best overlooked. Just concentrate on how beautiful Lake is as she says the words. Finally she softens Raven up and we get the backstory of abuse leading to crime and punishment, more abuse and more crime. Little fella never stood a chance and when he accidentally kills a cat while hiding from the police then we know the shadow of the noose is nigh. No cat-loving cold-hearted killer can kill a cat and get away with it. Not in film noir.
Of course, noir usually gives us a chance for regret and, more rarely, sometimes it gives us a chance for redemption. Raven manages to bring down the true bad guys (you know, apart from himself, the killer) before the police break in to shoot him dead. And not before he saves Graham's fiance Detective Crane. This bad guy goes out on the good side, Crane and Graham smiling down at him like a pair of angels. Still unlikely he makes it to heaven, mind.
Plenty of action and some classic hardboiled dialogue, all tied down by nice performances from the main players. Also convoluted, confusing, with several leaps of baffling logic, but hell this is noir. It's not about the story, it's about the style, the bad-luck characters, and the people we kill along the way.
In short: kill a woman = doomed.
Kill a cat = double doomed.
Meet Veronica Lake = strive to redeem your no good life, foil a plot to betray America, and give two lovers a chance at the happiness you never had.
'This Gun for Hire' at Wikipedia
'This Gun for Hire' at IMDB
Trailer at YouTube
*** Contains Spoilers ***