Alan Ladd, who I know and I imagine most know best as the titular character of Shane, plays a role that is a bit out of the ordinary for the time which is a bit out of the ordinary. It is not that he simply plays a hit man, the careers of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney show that playing criminals was a common occurrence, but the role of Philip Raven is rather different from the gangster those actors played. Raven is actually much closer in vein to say the titular Jackal from the Day of the Jackal. It is not powerful explosive emotions that seem to drive Raven, but rather a very cold professional brutality instead which is certainly rather striking to see from a film made in the early forties.
Ladd's performance also is not trying to sugar coat this character really in any regard. The character is cold and brutal and Ladd actually plays him this way. Ladd carries himself well in the part creating a rather intimidating presence with his performance, and he definitely has that death stare down that is needed for a part like this. Ladd gives a particularly dour performance here, and is not afraid to show this character as the sociopath he is. There is an innate viciousness that Ladd brings to his role and he is very effective early on the film as Raven is taking care of business silently. Ladd finds the brutality of Raven's murders not through an emotionally anger, but rather through his rather intense callousness in almost all things he does which includes killing others.
Ladd is good in the role in that he takes the right approach, but he's never quite great. Part of this comes from when Raven starts to speak a little more, which is unfortunate. Although Ladd is good in the silent portrayal of Raven's menace he is not quite the same when Raven tries to openly threaten others. Ladd seems to try a little hard in these moments to seem intimidating, and although he never bad it actually weakens what he did right with the role when he is not speaking. Thankfully Ladd never goes too far and fully compromise the rest of his performance with some true overacting. This does weaken the character's impact and Ladd's performance here never does become nearly as compelling as Edward Fox's performance as a similar character in The Day of the Jackal.
Being a film from the forties I fully expected the character to be softened as the film progressed especially after he kidnaps a woman (Veronica Lake) who begins to question his pessimistic attitude. Well although the film reveals Raven not to be pure evil, and that his viciousness does come from somewhere he actually still stays fairly cold after all. Ladd is good as I'm glad he still stays with the character even as he reveals more about the man. Ladd reveals that Raven is not soulless and his troubles started at childhood. Ladd is particularly good as he tells his childhood story because he brings such a powerful hate that is entirely fitting for such a hard boiled man. It would have been easy to make these scene emotional in the wrong way, but Ladd keeps Raven as he killer the whole film through.
This is never quite a great portrayal of the almost heartless killer as I do think a truly great performance very well could have come from this character with another actor in the role. Ladd, to his credit though, hits all of the right notes with his performance through taking the right approach. He does not hit all of these notes exactly right as there are definitely scenes where you could see where there could have been a greater impact, yet Ladd still is on mark with how the scene should play in relation to the character. Ladd does not mind being unlikable, and rightfully never compromises his character, making his more emotional scenes bring depth to the character rather than a contradiction. Ladd never makes the absolute most out of the role, but he still does do it some justice giving an interesting portrait of a very unorthodox character for the time.