REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


GRAHAM GREENE – This Gun for Hire. Doubleday, US, 1936. Previously published in the UK as A Gun for Sale, Heinemann, 1936. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft.

GRAHAM GREENE This Gun for Hire

? Filmed as This Gun for Hire. Paramount, 1942. Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd, Tully Marshall, Marc Lawrence. Screenwroters: Albert Maltz & W. R. Burnett; director: Frank Tuttle).

? Also filmed as Short Cut to Hell. Paramount, 1957. William Bishop, Robert Ivers, Georgann Johnson, Yvette Vickers, Murvyn Vye. Director: James Cagney.

   Written in 1936 and very much aware of its time, Grahame Greene’s This Gun for Hire spins a (mostly) taut tale of an ugly little paid killer played false by his employers, evading the law and pursuing his lonely revenge, but at the same time manages to evoke much more.

   There are themes of isolation and alienation here, vividly rendered by a simple plot that manages to turn most of its protagonists into outcasts at one point or another: the heroine goes from hostage to accomplice; her detective-boyfriend gets betrayed and bitter; the slimy go-between finds himself abandoned in his turn… and Greene sharpens his point with background motifs of Britain trying to celebrate Christmas on the eve of war. (In 1936, Europe was teetering on the brink of conflict like a drunk at the edge of a swimming pool, but there were still those who thought it could be avoided.) This Gun is filled with War headlines, nativity displays, civil defense drills and holiday shoppers in splendid counterpoint to its fast-moving tale of hunter/hunted.

GRAHAM GREENE This Gun for Hire

   Some of the players in this thing get a bit too much detail, and things slow up for characters we never really care much about, but Greene’s heroine breaks the mold, a tough proto-feminist who gets kidnapped, shot at, beaten, bound and stuffed up a chimney without once losing her wise-cracking, hard-boiled aplomb. A marvelous creation in a classic thriller.

***

   This Gun for Hire was filmed twice, and both times the Christmas/War motifs were jettisoned as the action was moved from 1936 England to contemporary America.

GRAHAM GREENE This Gun for Hire

   Greene’s preoccupation with man’s relationship to God and Society got short shrift too, while in the 1942 film writer W.R. Burnett focused on spies, poison gas, action and pace. Also, the hero/killer’s disfigured face, a major element in the book, was completely reversed by boyish Alan Ladd.

   Still, the 1942 film of This Gun for Hire is a fine thing, with Veronica Lake ably translating Greene’s heroine, Laird Cregar memorably sucking chocolates as he orders a killing, and Alan Ladd, who turned out to be an actor of rather limited resources, achieving stardom as a hired killer — the perfect fusion of Actor and Role.

GRAHAM GREENE This Gun for Hire

   Then in 1955 producer A.C. Lyles (best remembered for a series of geriatric B-westerns in the 196Os) remade This Gun for Hire as Short Cut to Hell, directed by James Cagney, of all people.

   It’s a difficult film to like: crude, sloppy, brutal and rather pointless, but Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson (whose careers went nowhere) do surprisingly apt interpretations of Greene’s ratty little killer and smart-ass heroine.