Tuesday 28 July 2020

Albert Maltz on This Gun for Hire

This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942) [Photo: LIFE Magazine]

Interviewed by Joel Gardner between 1975 and 1979 for an oral history series by the University of California. As a part of Guns for Hire: Frank Tuttle vs. Stuart Heisler retrospective, This Gun for Hire will be playing at Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, August 26, 9:15 AM, Cine Jolly.


The financial squeeze that I [was in] became too great in the spring of 1941. My friends Michael Blankfort and George Sklar had gotten work in Hollywood, and we made the decision that I would try also. And as soon as teaching was over, I went out to Las Vegas, New Mexico, because my mother-in-law was ill and my wife had taken our son out there earlier. And then after a few days I went overnight by bus to Los Angeles. And I, for about ten days, slept on a couch in the tiny cottage that the Sklars had. Although he was working, they had not yet accumulated enough money to move into anything better than the very simple little quarters that they had. 

By luck I got a job very quickly. The film director Frank Tuttle had a piece of material--had a novel, actually, by Graham Greene called This Gun for Hire which had been owned by Paramount, and he had worked out a way in which the story might be done which was acceptable. He wanted a  writer just at the time that I came into town and heard about me and knew my work, and I got the job at $300 a week.

I worked for the first several months up at the home of director Frank Tuttle, who lived in a very large house in the Hollywood Hills; not only a large house with large grounds, it had a swimming pool but also had a very large poolside place where there was a gym and where guests could dress and undress and so on. And it was there that a table was set up and I worked. Now, I had come [to] Los Angeles with one suit only, which was a very heavy green tweed suit. It was wonderful for the New York winters. But when I hit Los Angeles in June, the weather was warm, and Frank Tuttle was out on the side of his pool just in a pair of swim trunks taking the sun. And while I would take off my jacket, and I'd take off my tie, I was still sitting in this heavy pair of  tweed trousers. And Frank would say, "Why do you wear such a warm suit?" And I would say, "Oh, I'm not warm." And it occurs to me that I could have borrowed money from George Sklar or Michael Blankfort for a new suit; why I didn't, I don't know. But I went through this comedy until money accumulated and I was able to get some clothes and an apartment and a car. 

Albert Maltz

For me, until the blacklist came, Hollywood was a blessing. It was the way in which I could finance my  serious writing while meeting my other obligations: one child, and then a second in 1942, and a wife with heavy medical and psychoanalytic bills, who was in bed ill for half of each year from 1939 until 1950. If it had not been for Hollywood, I would have had to try and catch on in radio or in some work unrelated to writing. And on the whole I was also fortunate in the film work I got. Most of it was interesting. I worked at it as hard as I could, and I did well at it. My ability to save money earned in film writing also freed me to work at novels with no concern whatsoever for anything except my subject. Farthest from my mind was whether or not the novel might become a film. Now, this was not necessarily true of others, but it was true of me. 

From the time that I began work in the middle of the year with Frank Tuttle, things went like this: the treatment for the story was accepted by the head of the studio and a producer was assigned to the project. The producer was the one who would work with the writer on the script, so that my first work with Tuttle was an unusual situation. Usually, in the setup at that time the producer would finish the script with the writer, the writer would then leave the studio, and the director would come in; and the writer and the director might have no contact whatsoever. And then it would be the producer with the director who would cast, and the producer would supervise the shooting, and the producer would have the last say on the cutting. But it was a sign of the fact that a project had become a reality, was going into screenplay, that a producer was assigned to it. 

Frank Tuttle in the mid-30s [Photo: John Kobal Collection]

An amusing little thing happened on This Gun for Hire. The head of the studio at that time was a Broadway character  by the name of Buddy DeSilva, who had been in the musical comedy field in New York. He knew the field of musical comedy, but I think little else. And he was afraid that I might not be able to write a sound screenplay so that, without waiting for my first screenplay, he hired a Warner  Brothers writer who had done some fine scripts at Warner Brothers, W. R. Burnett, and Burnett did me a marvelous turn. As I would write sequences of the screenplay, they would be sent to Burnett for revision. He would look at them and perhaps change a word and then send them back, untouched, and he did this for the whole screenplay. He got a joint screenplay credit for this because it was written into his contract that he had to get one. And at that time there wasn't the arbitration machinery in the Writers Guild which would have permitted me to protest this. But I was grateful to him because I didn't have the problem of wrangling with another man's taste. The usual practice of a second writer on a script like that  is to try and change the script so that it will be his own. 

Alan Ladd (Raven) carrying a passed out Veronica Lake (Ellen) in a scene from This Gun for Hire

The screenplay was completed at the end of September, and Alan Ladd, who had had a few small parts in films but had been noticed by Frank Tuttle, the director, was cast in it, and a passing sensation, Veronica Lake, was cast in the female part. The film went into production within about two weeks of the script having been finished, which was most unusual. I was assigned to be on the set because they had nothing else for me to do, actually, and I found this both useful in the learning process but essentially boring. And since I was not interested in becoming a director, I spent as much time as I could reading in the historical materials for my novel. 

[In] the case of Frank Tuttle and myself there was a harmony of attitude, and in order to make This Gun for Hire work when changed from the English scene to the American scene, and changed in the year-period, we found it necessary to make use, I believe, of a munitions maker who was a fascist in his general outlook. I don't remember the story very well. But we did that because we were seeking a motivation for what happened in the story, and we were not doing it because we wanted to try and say something politically. Actually, any writer, of whatever political or human persuasion, cannot help but write out of what is in his head and his heart.

Text courtesy of the University of California.

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