Alan Ladd had a small role in Citizen Kane as a reporter but it was two films he made in quick succession for Paramount, This Gun For Hire and The Glass Key that made him a star.
In the best of his early movies he was partnered with Veronica Lake. He was small, tough, impassive, she an icy. amoral blonde, and together they walked those mean streets with an unequalled coolness and class. Some dull action pictures spoiled Ladd’s record at the end of the Forties, but in 1953 he played his greatest role as Shane, the gentle but lethal gunfighter and the most mythical of Western screen heroes.
Ladd’s last notable part, following a final decline at Warners and Universal, was as the Hollywood cowboy in The Carpetbaggers. but he was already on the skids and died soon after from alcohol and medicine poisoning. A popular star in his prime and a strong actor too, here then is our pick of five of his best movies.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Ladd emerges as a major screen presence as a paid killer who gets mixed up in a sabotage ring. The story follows the cold-blooded killer as he goes about his day’s work, and then to a double-cross by Laird Cregar, a client who smuggles poison gas to the enemy. With both the police and Cregar’s henchmen on his tail, nightclub singer Veronica Lake teaches Ladd that he doesn’t have to kill and the murderer makes a too-late decision to do the noble thing. Ladd’s performance, a frightening exercise in cold, somber detachment (watch his eyes as he decides whether or not to slay a little girl), made him an instant sensation. Although designed as a B-movie the movie was derived from a down at heel novel by Graham Greene – A Gun for Sale. He and Lake made three more pictures together, including “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).
Director: Frank Tuttle
Cast: Alan Ladd, Marc Lawrence, Robert Preston, Mikhail Rasumny, Laird Cregar
The Glass Key (1942)
A classic murder mystery, based on the Hammett novel and said to be the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. When a corrupt politician is accused of murder, his assistant hunts the real killer, avoiding amorous advances from his boss’s fiancée and attacks from gangsters along the way. Ladd and Lake make this a better version than the 1935 film of the same name. Future leading man Dane Clark appears in the uncredited role of Henry Sloss. At the time, he was still using his real name, Bernard Zanville; it was changed when Warner Bros. put him under contract in 1943.
Director: Stuart Heisler
Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Joseph Calleia, Richard Denning, Brian Donlevy, Bonita Granville, Moroni Olsen
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
When Johnny Morrison returns home at the end of the war, he expects to receive a warm welcome from his wife. Instead, he discovers that she’s been unfaithful to him with the owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub. After a heated argument, he storms out of their house. Later that night, she’s murdered–and Johnny winds up the prime suspect. Joyce Harwood, the estranged wife of the club’s proprietor, lends Johnny a hand and the two fall in love while tracking down the killer. Though conceived as a novel, author Raymond Chandler turned The Blue Dahlia into a piece custom-made for Alan Ladd. Chandler saw his own novels filmed, and he adapted others’ works, but this was his only original script. Academy Award Nominations: Best Screenplay.
Director: George Marshall
Cast: Alan Ladd, William Bendix, Howard Da Silva, Howard Freeman, Tom Powers, Will Wright
The Great Gatsby (1949)
The second screen adaptation (after the silent 1926 version) of Fitzgerald’s story features a fine performance by Ladd in the Nick Carraway role. A searching young man observes the Jazz Age society of Long Island as go-between for an upwardly mobile gangster and a frivolous woman trying to rekindle a romantic spark. The novel’s mixture of envy and repulsion seems to resist big-screen treatment. Howard Da Silva, who plays Wilson in The Great Gatsby would later appear in the 1974 version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, playing the shady Meyer Wolfsheim. In the years in between, Da Silva was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist.
Director: Elliott Nugent
Cast: Alan Ladd, Barry Sullivan, Howard Da Silva, Betty Field, Shelley Winters
Considered one of the greatest Westerns, this is Ladd’s finest role. Like “High Noon”, with which it shares some similarity, Shane proposes that the stain of killing can’t be washed away, even if the death comes in a righteous cause. Ladd gets involved in a nasty skirmish between ranchers and farmers when he rides up to Heflin’s farmhouse looking for water. From the first, he impresses young De Wilde with his instinctual quick draw and then earns Heflin’s trust when he backs down bullying Meyer. Ladd seems to be putting down roots as he fights for the farmers. But after a final showdown with steely-eyed Palance, he rides away from the farm he’s made secure, knowing that his mere presence will bring more death. A landmark Western, beautifully directed and photographed. Despite speaking only 12 lines Jack Palance received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He would eventually win for his supporting role in City Slickers (1991). Academy Award Nominations: 6, including Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Supporting Actor: Jack Palance; Best Supporting Actor: Brandon de Wilde.
Director: George Stevens
Cast: Alan Ladd, Jack Palance, Jean Arthur, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr. , Brandon DeWilde, Van Heflin, Ben Johnson,