Two Early Noir Films starring Alan Ladd & Veronica Lake

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Gates: Raven… how do you feel when you’re doing…

[indicates murder headlines]

Gates: this?

Raven: I feel fine.

Hit man Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), who’s kind to kids and stray cats, kills a blackmailer and is paid off by Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) in “hot” $10 bills. A magician and girlfriend of a cop, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), is enlisted by a Senator to help investigate Gates, who is an exec at the Nitro Chemical Company. Raven, following Gates to get revenge, meets Ellen on a train from San Fran to LA. They eventually go from killer and potential victim to working together against a common enemy.

Ruby: What’s the matter? You look like you’ve been on a hayride with Dracula.

This tightly edited (81 mins.) early noir is loosely based on This Gun For Hire by Graham Greene. This was one of the earliest American films released in the years of WWII which specifically takes place in wartime; it opened 5 mos. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The petite/delicate-featured Lake was paired up w/ boyish newcomer Ladd (who was a good match at only 5’6″). The movie bills Lake and Robert Preston above the title, Cregar just below the title, and Ladd last in big type as “Introducing Alan Ladd.” However, Ladd had appeared in 40+ films in unbilled and minor parts.

[1] This is a straight-forward, linear, quick-moving story… …it’s still an entertaining movie, and probably close to required viewing if you enjoy noir and/or Forties movies.

[2] While many period pieces are “appreciated”, this one still provides a jolt of adrenaline right from the opening scene… He’s a bad man, no doubt about it, and his portrayal throughout most of the movie is surprisingly dark, even by today’s standards.

[3] This was Ladd’s breakthrough movie and he’s very good in it. I don’t think he was much of an actor, but he had a lot of star presence, especially in the movies he made in the Forties. There was always something passive but potentially dangerous about him. His looks could have kept him in the pretty boy category, but for whatever reason didn’t.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Johnny: [after being picked up] You gotta have more sense than to take chances with strangers like this.

Joyce: It’s funny but practically all the people were strangers when I met them.

When naval officer Johnny Morrison (Ladd) comes home to LA, he finds his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), partying and kissing another man, Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), the owner of The Blue Dahlia nightclub. Helen admits her drunkenness caused a car accident which resulted in the death of their young son. Johnny pushes her around some, then pulls a gun on her, but then runs out. Johnny is picked up by a young woman (Lake) in the rain. Later, Helen is found dead and Johnny becomes the prime suspect. Meanwhile, Johnny’s two war buddies get an apt in town, and then are questioned by the cops.

Elizabeth Short (a young aspiring actress) got the nickname “The Black Dahlia” from a bartender at a Long Beach bar she frequented. This film was playing at a theater down the street, and the bartender got the name wrong. Elizabeth kept the nickname, adding a flower to her hair to complete the transformation. She was murdered the next year (1947). The local newspapers dubbed the case the “Black Dahlia” (the murder case is still unsolved).

Johnny: Every guy’s seen you before somewhere. The trick is to find you.

The screenplay was written by Raymond Chandler; he claimed that producer John Houseman was in “the doghouse” and director George Marshall “was a stale old hack”, so Chandler went on to the Paramount set to direct some of the scenes himself. Chandler was unhappy with Lake’s performance; he called her “Miss Moronica Lake” and complained in a letter: “The only times she’s good is when she keeps her mouth shut and looks mysterious. The moment she tries to behave as if she had a brain she falls flat on her face.” A few scenes were cut b/c he claimed Lake messed up too badly. The ending was changed b/c the Naval War Office objected.

[1]… Bendix steals the show as a G.I. who suffered brain damage in World War II. He is something to see and his wise-cracking lines are some of the best ever delivered in a film noir.

[2] … strikes all the right ultra-tough chords, and although Veronica Lake is a rather wooden actress she is remarkably beautiful and as a team the pair has considerable chemistry [w/ Ladd].

The film cracks along at a rapid pace with plenty of action and a surprise twist or two that will keep you guessing to the very end.

[3] It’s a very bleak tale of returning war veterans’ findings when they reach “home.” Unfaithful wife, hoodlums, and just general corruption and bleakness. The scenes with Veronica Lake are the shafts of light in this one’s blackness.. all in all it conjours up dark images in one’s mind.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1956) starring Dana Andrews & Joan Fontaine

Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) is a reporter on leave from his newspaper to write his second book. Since he has writer’s block, his publisher/friend, Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), suggests an idea for a non-fiction book on capital punishment. Austin thinks the local DA, Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), is using the death penalty in the hopes of getting into the governor’s mansion. Tom and Austin decide to frame Tom for a murder he didn’t commit, in the hopes of showing how easily a man could be found guilty (w/ only circumstantial evidence). They decide to keep Tom’s fiancee/Austin’s daughter, Susan (Joan Fontaine), out of the loop.

Austin: You get engaged to my daughter, and all you can think about is capital punishment?

This was the last American film made by Fritz Lang (an iconic noir director) before returning to his native Germany; he fled in 1934 b/c of the rise of the Nazis (being Jewish). Lang chafed against the Hollywood studio system when producers wanted to impose their ideas on his vision. This film (shot in only 20 days- wow) is a legal drama and noir rolled into one. Instead of a cop, we follow a journalist (which was common for the noir genre). Though it’s not in Lang’s usual style, I thought it was riveting from the start. Some viewers said the movie looked more like a TV show; TV was on the verge of becoming big in the mid-1950s. The dialogue is smart, pacing well-done, and the acting is good (down to the small roles).

Dolly: This guy’s got a lot of class.

Terry: Yeah? If he’s got so much class, what’s he doin’ with you?

Andrews and Fontaine make an elegant couple; they’re also fine actors who understand subtlety. Fontaine gets some classy outfits to wear, too. I think she looked more interesting in her 30s and somewhat baby-faced in her 20s. I wish she had more to do. One of the burlesque dancers, Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols), brings some humor to the story. Moore looks/acts like a taller a and more streetwise version of Marilyn Monroe; she was in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) opposite Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster.


[1] The main strengths of this movie… its lively pace, its wonderfully bizarre plot and the unexpected twists which make it so intriguing and enjoyable to watch.

[2] Andrews and Fontaine are not a bad pair—both are matched in calm and sophistication, and beauty, even, though Fontaine seems like an accessory until the very end. Andrews rules the plot, which makes him out to be a writer desperate for a new story.

[3] This is perhaps Lang’s best assault on the American justice system; he has created a story that is interesting and very plausible and it works a treat in that it gets you thinking about the fact that with this kind of law; someone really could be killed for something they didn’t do.

It is efficient story telling at it’s best and this is one of the highlights of the film noir era.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Deadline – USA” (1952) starring Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore, & Kim Hunter

Ed Hutcheson, the editor of a crusading NYC newspaper- The Day– finds that the late owner’s daughters will soon be selling it to a rival (which focuses more on sensationalism). At first, he sees impending unemployment as a chance to win back the ex-wife he still loves, Nora (Kim Hunter). Then, a reporter pursuing a lead on a racketeer, Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel), is badly beaten. Hutcheson goes into fighting mode, trying to connect Rienzi to a young woman’s murder… and maybe even saving the paper (and the jobs of his co-workers)!

Ed Hutcheson: A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger.

The story is based on the closing of the The Sun, founded by Benjamin Day, in 1950. The Sun was sold to the Scripps Howard chain and merged into The World-Telegram. Location shooting took place both in the newsroom and the printing plant of The New York Daily News, w/ real pressmen playing themselves. There was also a reproduction of a newsroom on a Hollywood soundstage.

Alice: [After her mother announces she’s buying back the paper] What changed your mind?

Mrs. Garrison: Have you seen today’s paper? And yesterday’s? Loyalty changed my mind. A principle evidently lacking in today’s generation.

There are unpredictable scenes, many fine supporting actors, and a very strong script. The writer/director, Richard Brooks, worked on The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Elmer Gantry (1960). He had 6 Oscar noms during his film career- wow! Bogie (over 50, yet still going strong) gives an energetic and powerful performance, though it never seems over-the-top. Each line comes across as if he’d thought it up himself at the moment! Ethel Barrymore lends even more gravitas to the story w/ her portrayal of Margaret Garrison, the widow of the paper’s respected founder.

[1] …a realistic look at the life of a big city paper in days gone by. It’s a gritty piece of nostalgia, as timely in its day as The Front Page was in the Twenties. Cast members like Paul Stewart, Jim Backus, and Ed Begley look and feel right at home at their jobs.

[2] Kim Hunter excels also as the Bogart ex. Martin Gabel eerily predicts the Tony Soprano performance of today as an underworld Kingpin shown with his perfect domestic arrangement.

[3] …surprisingly up to date in its concern with how the public often doesn’t really care about the news, and that a lot of what’s packaged as news is just entertainment.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Caught” (1949) starring James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, & Robert Ryan

Maxine: [Persuading Leonora to attend a charm school] You’re not going just to get a better job. A charm school is like college and finishing school combined.

Leonora Eames: I can read, Maxine.

Maxine: Well, all I can say is, without a social education, you’re never gonna’ meet a real man.

Though she is struggling to pay bills in SoCal, an idealistic waitress from Iowa, Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), decides to spend on a 6-wk. course at a charm school. She soon becomes a department store model like her friend/roomie (Maxine). Leonora gets noticed by a man at the perfume counter (as she’d imagined); he invites her to a party on a yacht owned by bachelor/millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan). Thinking that she’s in love, Leonora marries Smith, and begins her life on his Long Island estate. It turns out that Smith is a workaholic; he’s also a cold-hearted/controlling husband. After a year of (miserable) married life, Leonora leaves him. She answers an ad for a receptionist for a doctors’ office on the Lower East Side. One of the doctors is an obstetrician; the other, Larry Quinada (James Mason), is a pediatrician.

How do I wish to be remembered, if at all? I think perhaps just as a fairly desirable sort of character actor. -James Mason

Some classic film fans may realize that Smith is based on (another difficult millionaire) Howard Hughes. The 1992 restoration of this film at UCLA was financed by Scorsese, who later directed The Aviator (2004). For his American film debut, Mason (then 40 y.o.) was first cast as Smith; he asked to play the other male role, as he wanted to change his (villainous) screen image. The director (Max Ophuls) brings an European (German to be exact) sensibility to the melodrama/noir. The angles, lighting, and movement of the camera help in creating an unique, yet unsettling film showing the dark side of “The American Dream.” Bel Geddes does fine, but she’s not a very nuanced actress; she is known best as Ellie Ewing (matriarch) on Dallas. Ryan and Mason are the ones who shine here. They are filmed and lit in different ways; Ryan looks threatening/dangerous (shot from below or farther away) and Mason comes across as relatable/comforting (shot more close-up at eye-level). I’d like to check out more of this director’s English-language films.

[1] … it was brilliant casting: Ryan was a superb actor. He was tall and intense. …the character he plays here is withdrawn, well-spoken, and even a bit effete. It’s an exceptionally good performance that today would win an actor all sorts of awards.

[2] The messages about the state of that world are strong, indeed almost totally lacking in any subtlety… all of which starkly inform the viewer that the price of excessive wealth and social nihilism combined is so close to madness it’s not worth chasing; far better, instead, to reject such excesses and concentrate on being a valuable member of society.

Some great camera work and all in lovely black and white makes this movie a worthwhile addition to the film-noir genre.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Beware, My Lovely” (1952) starring Ida Lupino & Robert Ryan

Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan), a handyman/drifter, arrives at the house of widow/teacher Helen Gordon (Ida Lupino). He is hired for the day to help clean the house, incl. waxing the floor. It soon becomes apparent that Howard’s behavior is unusual. Howard anxiously asks Helen if his work is satisfactory. He works hard, but is uncomfortable b/c he thinks she is watching him. Helen’s teen niece, Ruth (Barbara Whiting), reacts badly when Howard doesn’t appreciate her flirty behavior. She taunts him; this makes him mad. After she leaves, Howard locks the doors, and makes Helen a prisoner in her own home!

The petite Lupino makes a striking contrast to the dark/tall (6’3″) Ryan. This taut/thought-provoking 77 min. noir was also owned/produced by Lupino and her husband, Collier Young. This is the first movie directed by Harry Horner, who worked as an art director/ production designer for theater, opera, as well as movies. The head of RKO, Howard Hughes, held the film from release for a year. Ryan felt Hughes (known for his right-wing politics) tried to “bury” it b/c Ryan was publicly active in left-wing politics. The staircase was left over from the set of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and would be used in many RKO films.

We (in the modern world) are wary to have strangers work our homes (w/o a reference from a friend, family member, or trusted neighbor). Of course, many of us do research on businesses online. However, this story is set in 1918 in a small town, where almost everyone knows each other. Helen’s boarder, Mr. Armstrong (Taylor Holmes), jokes around w/ her before leaving town for the holidays. A group of young schoolchildren bring gifts for Helen to place under her Christmas. This is not the type of environment where we expect danger, in reality and in fiction. But you never can tell! “Women in jeopardy” movies used to be a staple of ‘90s cable TV; however, the story here is more nuanced than you’d expect.

[1] I was attracted to this film because the title suggested a tough detective film noir… Very quickly though I realised that this was down to some people’s assumption that anything that is black and white and tough gets called a “noir,” but I was not disappointed because this domestic thriller is driven by two very good performances. 

[2] …wow did Ryan do a really good job portraying this man! You really find yourself feeling for Ida Lupino as he destroys her life. So with such intense acting and menace…

[3] The suspense comes from her various ploys to keep him happy while trying to escape. It’s a nail-biter all the way. 

-Excerpts from IMDB movies