Part of the fun of attending the local cinephile society’s get-togethers is seeing (and hearing) the audience’s reaction to the movie.
I should explain that these gatherings are held at a family restaurant, and although the folks who run the society are very knowledgeable about movies, they’re not highfalutin. (If anything, they’re lowfalutin.)
Many of the folks who come to have dinner and see the films often haven’t seen the movies before or haven’t seen them in a long time. And I’m also happy to note that quite a few audience members are very young.
I especially pay attention to the audience’s reactions when the film is a comedy. I enjoy seeing which gags work and which don’t.
The cinephile society’s latest offering was “This Gun for Hire” (Paramount, 1942). It’s definitely not a comedy, but the audience’s reaction to something that happened near the end provided a stark example of how one false note can screw up an entire cinematic symphony.
“This Gun for Hire,” directed by Frank Tuttle and based on a Graham Greene novel, catapulted Alan Ladd (below) to stardom – right over the head of Robert Preston, who was originally billed as the major star. Veronica Lake came along for the ride, and she and Ladd made a number of repeat journeys together.
Ladd plays Philip Raven, the kind of cold-blooded hit man who likes cats a lot more than he likes people. He’s hired to kill a blackmailer, but after the job, the guy who hired him (played by Laird Cregar) pays him off with hot money. After discovering the double cross, Raven tries to find him – and the mastermind behind him – to exact his revenge.
Along the way, he meets Ellen Graham (Lake), whose boyfriend, wouldn’t you know it, is the cop who’s leading the hunt for Raven. And shame on you if you haven’t figured out that the cop is played by Preston.
The mastermind is an ailing industrialist played by Tully Marshall, who was nearing the end of a 60-year career in show business. (According to the Internet Movie Database, he was born in 1864.) The industrialist has to use a wheelchair, and he’s assisted by a secretary/nurse played by Victor Kilian (left), whose most famous role came many years later – as the “Fernwood Flasher” in TV’s “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
For most of the movie the audience was quiet: The story was strong and the suspense was plentiful, not to mention the all-but-palpable chemistry between Ladd and Lake.
The audience was with the movie until the scene where Ladd confronts Marshall at gunpoint.
Then Victor Kilian, as the long-suffering servant, had to go and spoil it all with a line that was something along these lines:
“For years I’ve changed his clothes for him, washed him, and taken his abuse! I can’t take it anymore! Shoot away!”
At which point many folks in audience erupted in laughter, to the point where they couldn’t take the rest of the film seriously. They were (as we writers say) “taken out of the story.”
Now to be fair to Mr. Kilian, it probably wasn’t all his fault. The line was melodramatic to begin with (W.R. Burnett – of “Little Caesar” and “Asphalt Jungle” fame – and Albert Maltz are credited with the script, but there’s always the possibility that one or more other writers – or even execs – fiddled with it), but Mr. Kilian’s delivery sure didn’t help.
If Alan Ladd had been in the audience, he probably would have gone after whoever was responsible. And given his menacing performance, I’d be deathly afraid if he broke down my front door.
And I have two cats.