Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Number one with a bullet

Killers are a dime a dozen in the movies. In fact, the movies can be seen as a laboratory for murder. How many films are kicked off by a killing, motivated by murder, driven by blood? There are almost as many killers in the movies as there are lovers.

But if anyone can be a killer, true professionals — calm, focused, precise and, above all, talented — are a rare commodity. And while assassins and hit men are hardly considered heroes, there is something oddly seductive about a truly effective killer for hire. We can find ourselves rooting for these anti-heroes despite ourselves.

This season sees even more joining the ranks of the few, the proud, the deadly. Brad Pitt is a mob hit man tracking the lowlifes who robbed his boss in Killing Them Softly, while Christoph Waltz trains protégé Jamie Foxx in the fine art of bounty hunting in Django Unchained. How do they hold up to the most charming and proficient hit men and women who came before?

For comparison, we took a tour through a very special employment agency and picked out the top-rated specialists in this exclusive field from the past 60 or so years. They don’t kill for love or hate or fun. These are the best of a breed that treats death as a business and behaves accordingly, with bonus points for stealth, style and sheer love for their work.

‘This Gun For Hire’ – Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar

The hard-boiled killer: Alan Ladd in “This Gun for Hire”

Name: Philip Raven
Weapon of choice: Handgun
Defining characteristics: Shorter than your usual thug, has a soft spot for cats, works in a trench coat and fedora. It works for him.
Employer: The title speaks for itself
Motto: “I don’t go soft for anybody.”

Sales pitch: A pug who survived a bruising, abusive childhood, he’s the junkyard dog of hired guns, with the street smarts, patience and restraint of a veteran pro. You couldn’t choose better for a button man on the shadowy mean streets of 1940s cinema.

Vita: Alan Ladd isn’t even top-billed — he gets the “introducing” credit even though he’d been knocking around movies for years — but make no mistake: This burning ember of an anti-hero is the true the leading man here. Being 1942, the film hits the patriotism spiel pretty hard, but Raven’s shift has less to do with the message than the messenger. Veronica Lake makes the pitch that “War is everybody’s business,” and he’s inspired to do right by this square-deal dame.

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