Hitman Raven (Alan Ladd) wakes in his San Francisco rooms and considers his latest job. His cat is mewling outside the window, so he lets it in and feeds it milk, but then the maid (Pamela Blake) enters, wanting to clean the room, and tries to chase out the cat. For her trouble she has her dress torn and face slapped by Raven, and exits in a cloud of indignation. But Raven has his work to do and leaves for a place elsewhere in the city where he is invited in, only to kill the man who lives there and shoot dead his girlfriend as well so there are no witnesses. Little does Raven know that he is now embroiled in a conspiracy and is way over his head...
This adaptation of the Graham Greene novel was scripted by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, and updated to the war years for a patriotic flavour. Not that the flagwaving gets in the way of the story too much, and now This Gun for Hire is best remembered for being the film that not only made Alan Ladd a star but first teamed him with Veronica Lake - an ideal screen couple for the nineteen-forties and for each other, even if they don't share a romance in this one. If you were inclined to be uncharitable, you could also say that Lake was best suited to Ladd because she was even shorter than he was, but his height is cleverly disguised here as in most of his films.
After a terrific opening of menace, we are introduced to the real villain, Gates (Laird Cregar on excellent, slimy form), who hired Raven and hands over the cash for the job. But Raven is being set up by the untrustworthy Gates as the money is made up of marked bills, and Gates, being an executive at a shadowy chemicals company who set up the killing, immediately goes to the police to urge them to catch the killer. The lieutenant in charge of the case is Michael Crane (Robert Preston), who just happens to be the boyfriend of Ellen Graham (Lake), a nightclub magician auditioning for Gates' establishment.
It's all very conveniently plotted, with coincidence playing a part in the characters bumping into each other, but as the film flies along you don't really notice. Gates gives Ellen a job in his Los Angeles nightclub; her act includes an only-in-the-movies vanishing stunt while she accompanies herself by singing, surely only an excuse to include a couple of musical numbers (including a curious fishing-based one - watch for the dancers with rods in the background of one sequence). This means she has to move away from San Francisco and her now fiancé Crane, but as the person she sits next to on the train is Raven, we can tell they'll be seeing each other sooner rather than later. Raven is being tracked down by the police for trying to use his stolen money and is on the trail of Gates for revenge.
Although with this cast and the generally gloomy appearance of the work, This Gun for Hire is not, as you would expect, a film noir. Lake does not play a femme fatale and the hero is a straight as a die policeman. Of course, the character our sympathies lie partly with is Raven when we hear the rough life he has suffered that has forced him into criminal activity, and he is nice to cats, after all. And eventually, he's nice to Ellen, who almost reforms him when he forces her to go on the run with him. But he still has to carry out the revenge plot and it's interesting that the most despicable people in the film are the representatives of big business who are betraying their country for greed. Alas, the final scenes give the corny impression that, hey, even a psychopathic gunman can do the right thing for the good old U.S. of A., but other than that the film holds the attention with its thrills and doom laden atmosphere. Music by David Buttolph.