The Great Gatsby and This Gun for Hire

It’s that time again, Faustketeers. Noir City, Hollywood. This year’s big kick off was a real challenge for me, something I probably never would have chosen to watch on my own.

The Great Gatsby. Yes, really.

For starters, I have mixed feelings about Alan Ladd, who plays the lead in this version. He’s so pretty, it’s kind of hard to take him seriously.

Plus, I tend to (probably unfairly) associate him with the bad baseball script in Sunset Boulevard. But I had to throw all that out and try to keep an open mind. I’m glad I did.

Host Eddie Muller compared Ladd in this role to Bogart in In A Lonely Place, explaining how the story of Jay Gatsby reflects Ladd’s own background as a dirt-poor, malnourished Okie kid who worked his way up from nothing and became a movie star. That puts a interesting spin on it and gave more weight to what could have been a throwaway performance.

Putting aside the “Noir or Not” debate, this version of Gatsby is an interesting piece of film history that has been mostly forgotten in favor of the more popular 70s version. Even though it’s set in the 1920s, there’s an undeniably 40’s sensibility to this film. It features a lot of familiar Noir City faces, like Elisha Cook Jr, Barry Sullivan, Howard da Silva and Shelly Winters. It’s got all the extramarital sex, obsession, violence and murder that Noir Hounds crave. So much so, in fact, that it was a battle to get the film past censors who objected to it’s “low moral tone.”

“Low moral tone?” Count me in.

This isn’t a great movie. Some of the dialog is pretty leaden and unconvincing and it contains what may be the worst special effect of all time, but it’s dark and bleak and has a downbeat Noir ending. I was pretty impressed with the surprisingly gory (for the time) bare-chested bullet wound. I loved the saucy Ruth Hussey as Daisy’s sexually-liberated best friend and her funny, flirtatious banter with Sullivan was one of the highlights of the film. I also loved the rich old yacht captain egging Gatsby on to try to nail his sexy young trophy wife, knowing that his money would keep her faithful.

Is it Noir? I think so. Is it worth seeing? Definitely.

Of course, there’s no question about the second film on last night’s double bill. It doesn’t get much more Noir than This Gun For Hire.

Google Film Noir images, and one of the first things you’ll see will probably be this iconic photo of Ladd as hit man Phillip Raven. But This Gun For Hire has never been screened in 14 years of Noir City. Thankfully, that inexplicable oversight was corrected last night.

It had been ages since I’d seen this film and never on the big screen. I’d forgotten how kinky it is.

Bondage! Cross-dressing! Gas masks! Veronica Lake doing a fishing-themed nightclub number in a sexy black raincoat and thigh-high boots! This one is a must see for perverts and Noir Hounds alike.

Lake plays a sexy magician who gets mixed up with an unscrupulous chemical company executive and the hit man he double-crossed. This movie was Ladd’s break out role, and it’s easy to see why. He’s mesmerizing, stone cold and beautiful, yet at times touchingly vulnerable. I’m not a huge fan, but this may be my favorite of all his films.

I also love Veronica Lake in this film. Her character Ellen Graham is not just eye candy. She’s smart, independent and brave. Despite being bound and gagged, she never comes off as a helpless damsel in distress. When kidnapped, she secretly leaves clever clues to help the police follow her. She challenges convention and takes risks for what she believes is right. She’s a rare bird in Film Noir, a strong female who is not a villainess.

Even though Lake is engaged to a nice-guy cop and stays faithful to him throughout the film, her chemistry with Ladd is so powerful that it seems like there’s no one else in the world when they’re on screen together. It’s hardly surprising that the pair went on to make Film Noir classics The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia.

This film is available on DVD, so pick up a copy and play along at home. You won’t be sorry.

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