||Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd were a match made in movie heaven, which ironically is where they ended up, their lives curtailed by mental health issues and alcoholism to each die at the age of fifty years old. In their heyday, they were huge stars, not in stature, but in popularity: legend has it they were paired in 1942's This Gun for Hire, the Graham Greene film that made their professional names, because they were both so short in comparison to other actors hoping to play leads. Being difficult to cast for that reason, the studio decided they were onto a winner when this effort set the box office tills a-ringing, and they went on to star in three more pictures before the novelty wore off.
Those further movies were a Dashiell Hammett adaptation of The Glass Key (which This Gun for Hire director Frank Tuttle had tackled back in 1935 with George Raft), Raymond Chandler adaptation The Blue Dahlia (which notorious unsolved murder victim The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, got her nickname from), and the lesser Saigon, which ended their partnership as film noir's golden couple in 1948. They were golden as much because they were both blonde, which gave them a distinctive look that stood out in the genre’s moody, monochrome imagery, but also something about their chemistry seemed to speak to how young Americans liked to see each other in the forties.
And not only Americans, as Ladd and Lake became celebrated globally; it helped that they got on well, Lake especially not one to get along with her co-stars if she could find a grievance, but there was more to their union onscreen than being a physical match. Ladd was relatively short for a leading man in Hollywood of the day, but he was handsome (though he did not think so), with a mellifluous voice and a charisma that carried him through roles that did not exactly test his talents, which was just as well as he was regarded as being a poor actor by the critics of his era. The public did not care: they adored him, and he had a legion of fans, especially among kids.
The children could relate to the basic heroism Ladd portrayed, and he was a little tough guy just like they were, so of course in his signature role of Shane he played a Western gunfighter who is idolised by a small boy. In This Gun for Hire, he was also a tough guy, but more ambiguous; while Robert Preston essayed the traditional hero part of the police detective hunting Ladd's psychopathic killer Raven down, the other actor (Ladd receiving an "introducing" credit though he had been in bit parts for years, including in Citizen Kane) overshadowed him since we know he is the only man who can bring down the spy conspiracy that stems from corrupt capitalist warmongers in Los Angeles.
Lake was even shorter, reportedly an inch under five feet tall, so one leading lady Ladd could comfortably appear bigger than. She was also criticised for a lack of talent, but audiences liked her indelible look: tiny, bosomy but slender, and with her long, blonde hair that became known as the "peekaboo bang" which was so imitated by the Rosie the Riveters in the munitions factories that she was asked to change her style because it was a danger to being caught in the machinery the girls were using. Lake, too, had a pleasant, resonant voice, but her face could look aloof in repose, which was ideal for the film noir heroines she was famous for, only giving so much and no more.
She was introduced in This Gun for Hire doing a magic act, an eccentric touch which required her to perform tricks and illusions (topped off with one that is obvious camera trickery!), and seems lightweight until her character meets Raven, who has just assassinated his target and been passed marked bills by the real villain, Laird Cregar, who has a position in the crooked big business that could jeopardise American war effort. Cregar, too, had a sad life, and died even younger than his two co-stars thanks to a crash diet he implemented to carry out his dream of playing romantic leads, a fool's errand that everybody but himself could see, so suited to the bad guy roles was he.
So you can see there was a feeling of doom about many of these films noir, and none more so than in This Gun for Hire, despite its sort-of happy ending where the status quo is more or less restored and everyone gets what they deserved. Tuttle was a journeyman who for once found inspiration: it's a tremendously atmospheric little movie, and a lot of that is down to Ladd and Lake who made for such an odd couple in screen personality, but so perfectly matched physically, one of those happy accidents that illustrates how important good casting can be. That they both struggled with Hollywood, and indeed their lives, adds extra impact to their portrayals, as it can with those tragic stars; Veronica remains a legitimate cult favourite to this day, while Alan is a Golden Age actor notable for his popularity at odds with his critical standing. It's too late to help either now, but watching them create magic in films like This Gun for Hire makes their turmoil worth something.
[Eureka release This Gun for Hire on Blu-ray with the following features:
1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K scan of the original film elements
Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio
Audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
"This Gun for Hire" episode of Lux Radio Theater with the voices of Alan Ladd and Joan Blondell
"This Gun for Hire" episode of The Screen Guild Theater with the voices of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
A collector's booklet featuring new writing by film writer and journalist Barry Forshaw, and film writer Craig Ian Mann.]