It's National Classic Movie Day today! Not only that, but Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting the Four Favorite Noirs Blogathon today to celebrate -- read this post of theirs for links to all the participants.
For this event, I will be sharing some thoughts about the four noir films that Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake starred together in. I have fully reviewed all four of these previously, so I will link to those individual reviews as we go, too.
This Gun for Hire (1942) was Alan Ladd's big break. In it, he plays a baby-faced killer, Raven, a type that became very popular after this movie. Ladd brought such a powerful mixture of innocent charm and remorseless violence to the role that it became obvious to the filmmakers that they had a new star on their hands.
Hitman Raven is double-crossed by his employer (Laird Cregar) at the beginning of the movie, and he spends the rest of the story gathering evidence so he can get revenge. It just so happens that the heroine, Ellen (Veronica Lake), is gathering evidence of a very different sort about the same man to help the authorities catch him for selling military secrets to America's enemies.
Veronica Lake's star was on the rise when she made This Gun for Hire, as she'd just made a big splash with Sullivan's Travels the year before. She has a sweet charm, not the sultry sort we find in noir so often, which makes her kind of refreshing. Her character Ellen is not a femme fatale, but a good girl trying to do the right thing in a tough situation.
Ellen and Raven technically don't fall in love. They do eventually form a tentative friendship, but it's short-lived. Still, they get some wonderful scenes together, and Ladd and Lake had very good chemistry. So, the studio rushed to put together another film for them to star opposite each other in.
The Glass Key (1942) capitalizes on the antagonistic chemistry that sizzled between Ladd and Lake. It's based on a hardboiled detective novel by Dashiell Hammett (read my review of the book here) that had been made into a movie once before, in 1935, starring George Raft.
The story revolves around Paul Madvig, a criminal organizer (Brian Donlevy) who decides to enter politics. He falls in love with wealthy socialite Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), but she scorns him while secretly admiring his right-hand man Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd). When Janet's brother is murdered, both men fall under suspicion for the killing, and only one of them has the brains and guts to figure out the truth.
Alan Ladd carries his first real starring role pretty well, though I sometimes get the sense that he was feeling a lot of pressure to act extra tough and extra cool in this.
Ed Beaumont's nemesis is a thug named Jeff played by William Bendix. While shooting one altercation early in filming, Bendix failed to fully pull a punch and knocked Ladd cold. That may sound like a weird basis for starting a friendship, but the two of them became fast friends and were close for years and years after.
Veronica Lake plays aloof and skeptical for most of the film, which is very different from her earnest and kind character in This Gun for Hire. She pulls off the role just fine, letting us see her interest in Ladd's character even while she pretends to disdain him.
Lake and Ladd's characters do get to exchange some combatively romantic dialog, but their love story isn't exactly central to the movie's plot. That would change in their next outing together.
The Blue Dahlia (1946) does give Ladd and Lake a romantic pair to play. But, even here, their romance is a by-product of the plot, it doesn't fuel it.
Three military buddies freshly mustered out of the military return stateside to resume their normal lives. Buzz (William Bendix) and George (Hugh Beaumont) were part of the bomber crew led by Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd). Though George and Johnny bear no physical effects from their time in service, Buzz had a head injury that has left him moody and unpredictable.
George and Buzz set off to find an apartment together, but Johnny has a wife and a home to go to. The only trouble is, his wife (Doris Dowling) is a party animal who's cheating on him with a nightclub owner (Howard da Silva). When the wife ends up dead, Johnny is suspected of murdering her and has to race to clear his name. He inadvertently meets up with the nightclub owner's estranged wife Joyce (Veronica Lake), and the two share some sympathetic moments before they learn how their lives have already been tangled up thanks to their unfaithful spouses.
Ladd is in top form in The Blue Dahlia. He spits out angry one-liners while letting you see the ache behind the anger at the same time. His character is a man displaced, a misfit who changed so much during the war he doesn't know where he belongs anymore. Ladd gives him a desperate edge that keeps the audience guessing as to whether or not he did kill his wife, right up to the end. But he also projects this innate kindness and decency that makes you really hope he didn't do it.
Veronica Lake plays one of only two thoroughly upright, good characters in the whole movie. She's a good girl in a bad marriage, but she hasn't let it harden or roughen her, which clues the audience in as to just how strong she is inside.
Lake and Ladd's characters don't get to do much more than yearn for each other and trade snappy dialog for the bulk of the film, but the audience has no trouble believing they will see a lot more of each other after the story ends.
In fact, the two of them are so good together that it's a shame they only made one more movie together after this one.
Saigon (1947) is the only one of these four movies not readily available on DVD right now. I hope that will change! You can sometimes catch it on TV, at least.
This is another tale of three military friends after the war, one of whom is not physically well. Major Briggs (Alan Ladd) and Sergeant Rocco (Wally Cassell) are keeping a terrible secret from their buddy, Captain Perry (Douglas Dick): he has a brain condition that could kill him any day.
The three of them use their flying skills to make money flying cargo planes around Southeast Asia for basically anyone who needs something flown somewhere. They take a job flying a rich guy and his secretary Susan (Veronica Lake) to Saigon but, thanks to a last-minute gunfight, only the secretary catches the plane. Perry promptly falls in love with Susan, and Briggs does too. Briggs won't admit he's in love to anyone, including himself, but Perry turns into a lovesick puppy. Susan learns about the brain injury and is kind to Perry, and she is definitely not attracted to Briggs because he is mean and crabby, and never says nice things to her. Definitely not attracted. As you can see from the production photos here.
A whole plot involving smuggling ensues, just to keep things interesting. Saigon is generally classified as film noir, but it's the least noir of these four, in my opinion. But it's still a really fun ride.
You can read my full review of Saigon here.
Although their characters spend most of the film distrusting each other, snapping at each other, and generally being as unpleasant to each other as they can, you can always feel the crackle of attraction between Ladd and Lake's characters. The best part of this movie is watching their scenes together, two total pros who know exactly how to bring out the best in each other.
Although the characters they're playing aren't my favorite pair of the four pairs they play, I think Lake and Ladd are the most fun to watch in this one. They're clearly very comfortable with each other, after making three movies together before this, and that lets them both relax and turn in awesome, confident performances.
Plus, they get a Really Good Kiss in Saigon :-) That doesn't hurt at all.
I hope you've enjoyed this little collection of my thoughts on these four films. Happy National Classic Movie Day! I don't know how you plan to celebrate, but I'll be watching Alan Ladd play The Great Gatsby (1949) with a friend this evening...