Anti-heroes long have been a staple of literature. Shakespeare is full of them. So, for that matter is Homer: it’s hard to put Paris in a good light. So, too, in cinema, e.g. the pre-code Night Nurse (1931) at the end of which (*spoiler*) Barbara Stanwyck’s likable gangster boyfriend bumps off the scheming and unlikable Nick (Clark Gable) and gets away with it; in the context of the film, this is a happy ending. Hitmen and hitwomen have held a particular fascination for screenwriters. Why? I surely have no definitive answer, but one may note that even the most committed defenders of the law and the state chafe under their restrictions. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud explicitly argues that thwarting the death instinct’s destructiveness is inescapably a cause of individual unhappiness but is a price worth paying for civilization. Identifying with lawless screen characters for a couple hours is a harmless way vicariously to take one’s death instinct out for a walk.
The occasion for the above prelude is a DVD spin yesterday of a commercially successful 2008 flick about an organization of assassins. I missed it back when it was in the theater. Before visiting it, however, I decided first to revisit a film noir classic of the genre.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Though gangsters who count murder among their crimes long had been stock figures in movies, this is one of the earliest films to make a specialized hitman the central character. Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) delivers his lines and his bullets deadpan. Unlike what the trailer for the movie indicates, he doesn’t kill for the love of it or for no reason, but when he has a reason (usually it’s just a job) he is utterly ruthless and has no hesitation at all about eliminating witnesses who just happen to be in the wrong place; in one scene he reaches for his gun when a little girl speaks to him as he leaves a job, but then puts it away when he notices she is blind. Yet, real human beings – even psychopaths – are not robots and we quickly see that there are some emotions behind the expressionless face. He likes cats, for one thing.
Willard Gates, a corpulent personal representative of a corrupt and treasonous wheelchair-bound industrialist, hires Raven for a job but pays him in marked bills so he’ll be arrested. Raven evades arrest but then seeks out Gates for revenge. Gates is a curiously drawn character who behaves outwardly as a womanizer, though his relationship with his chauffeur/aide is plainly the closer one. Raven’s path intersects that of nightclub performer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) who is working for the feds undercover, a job she must keep secret even from her policeman boyfriend. She, too, is after Gates. The feds suspect that Gates’ boss is selling secrets to the Japanese – this is 1942.
The modestly budgeted movie in so many ways is incredibly hokey and timebound, and yet it has flashes of deeper sophistication than most recent films of its type. It’s a very 1940s combination of opposites, and it’s an appealing one. Some critics dislike the way Raven opens up to Ellen in one scene, giving us a Freudian partial explanation for his nature: he was severely abused growing up. I think it’s a very useful scene that helps put his odd relationship with Ellen in context; despite her youth he relates to her (again, the trailer misleads) as someone maternal, not romantic, which is why he seeks her approval at the end.
Still a Thumbs Up.
The movie adaptation balks at the full nihilism of the source. In Mark Millar’s extremely violent comic book series “Wanted” (2003-2005) Millar confirms every nightmare you ever had that the world at the very top is run by a sociopathic criminal elite. The members are unabashedly self-serving. They assassinate for their own selfish motives. The narrating character enjoys his psychopathy, his criminality, and his membership in that elite. He scoffs at the reader for being a sucker.
In the movie “Wanted” the assassins are an ancient order working on behalf of Fate, whose designs can be deciphered from the weave of fabric. (This presumably is from classical mythology’s tapestry of the Fates.) They might not understand why certain targets are chosen for them to kill, but they assume they are serving some higher purpose. Nonetheless, they have no qualms about criminal activity or collateral damage while doing it. The movie is almost as brutal as the comics, but the change in motivation changes everything. I still liked it despite its philosophical timidity, but it requires a high tolerance for movie violence.
Wesley (James McAvoy) is a meek nobody in a nothing job with an abusive boss. His girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend, and he pretends not to know it rather than face the reality. He encounters Fox (Angelina Jolie) who tells him he is the son of an elite assassin and that he has inherited many of his father’s innate abilities. She introduces him to the order of assassins presided by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and takes over his training. Wesley no longer is a nobody. Bullets fly, cars crash, trains wreck, fists swing, and blood flows.
Despite the alterations from Millar’s comic, I’ll give it a cautious Thumbs Up. While the movie got mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics, Peter Bradshaw (“You could gargle bitumen and bin-juice for half an hour, and it couldn't leave a nastier taste in your mouth…”) at The Guardian was not alone in his reaction.
After watching both movies I still don’t have a definitive answer about their appeal to audiences, but they are cathartic in their own way. For the next few days I have no wish to see anything more savage than, perhaps, Disney’s Tangled.
Trailer: This Gun for Hire (1942)