Movie Critique – Murder By Contract

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: Often called as film-making to bare essentials, this sparse, witty-laced, contract killer movie is set apart from other film noirs. 

Murder By Contract is a 1958 American film noir crime film. The plot centers on a hit man who has been assigned to kill a woman. Directed by Irving Lerner, the movie wasn’t an instant hit. Yet it made into the Columbia Picture Film Noir Classics and has been influential movie for director Martin Scorsese. The film was based on an original screenplay by Bin Simcoe, although it is generally believed that the final script was completed by Academy Award nominee Ben Maddow, a fellow documentarian. 

Claude (portrayed Vince Edwards) finds murder as the best option to fast track to success and have the America Dream come true - a house, money and everything material that shows him a success. His job as a hitman proves a profitable one until his next target ends up being a woman.

The film was shot in seven straight days in February of 1958 in Los Angeles, on a shoestring budget by a company called Outfit Productions. Director Irving Lerner was one of those 50s director who came to Hollywood from New York and caused a ripple big enough to change the future of film making.

Prior to coming to Hollywood, Lerner was a documentarian for most part and worked as an assistant director or cinematographer for many fiction and documentary films. His 1953 film Man Crazy cemented his job as a Director though he continued as Producer or Editor or Cinematographer or Assistant Director in several films in parallel. 

Ben Maddow's name perhaps hadnt been highlighted as the screenwriter in this film as in many of his other films in 50s where he contributed anonymously, after being black listed. Some of those famed films include Marlon Brando's 1953 American film noir The Wild One, 1957 war film Men in War, 1958 American comedy-drama God's Little Acre and of course this film that I am writing about. 

Vince Edwards, also came from New York, just like the director and shadow screenwriter of this film. As a youth he wanted to be an athlete rather than an actor. But an appendicitis operation cut short that race to Olympics, he turned that ambition towards acting. Prior to this film he had been playing bit parts then to hoodlum roles in some noted films including the 1956 film The Killing. 

He goes on to become successful actor, singer and director, famed for his role as Dr. Ben Casey in the TV series Ben Casey. Considering he played always a hoodlum role for most part, him being a doctor on a TV show must have been a pleasant change. I remember seeing him as Harry Dial in the Season 5 Episode 20 - Three Strikes, You're Out - of Murder, She Wrote TV series.

He lives the role of Claude, a hitman who takes his job seriously, as serious as a business. A unique hitman he is so that he does his work very precisely planned. We don’t see Vince anymore after the first few frames, just Claude. 

Caprice Toriel gives an excellent performance as the hitman's target with punching dialogues and high strung emotions. According to TCM's Noir Alley expert Eddie Muller, Toriel is a mystery and they do not have a lot of information about her. This is her only known film or tv role. He is asking fans to fill in information about her, if anyone knows, on FB or Twitter. I am surprised that Toriel didn’t get caught by big names after giving such an impactful performance. 

This film was a debut for Kathy Browne who portrayed the role of Mary, who went on to play a part in the 1966 TV show Star Trek: The Original Series along with three other actors from the film - Phillip Pine (portrayed the role of Marc), Joseph Mell (portrayed the role of Harry) and Davis Roberts (has a minor role as a clerk). But Kathy got into a few of Perry Mason episodes too from where I remember her. 

I remember Phillip Pine from two of Twilight Zone episodes - The Four of Us Are Dying in 1960 and The Incredible World of Horace Ford in 1963 - and from Perry Mason episode of The Case of the Wednesday Woman in 1964. 

The movie is unique in the way that it shows more of Claude waiting and killing time than killing the actual victim; it shows the story from the hitman's angle rather than the victim's. It is very sparse, low style, with witty remarks thrown around by Claude's handlers George (portrayed by Herschel Bernardi) and Marc who bring in a comic relief to the cool and philosophical attitude of Claude.

Another aspect that sets the film apart is the music by Perry Botkin, who was Bing Crosby's guitarist for almost 20 years. The entire background score is a solo guitar playing over and over variations of the same single riff. The music connects the viewers to the mundane routine of the hit man feeding the laconic attitude back. 

Lerner and his cameraman Lucian Ballard show the ruthlessness in the hit man as well as his leisurely way he tracks his target out in simple ways using metaphors and sometimes obvious things creating a subtle shiver in the viewer's back. For instance, right before he kills his first target, the director shows us this lava lamp kind of lamp with the words "You Are Next" written on it. And as seen the next person shown is the hitman's target. 

One of the monologue Claude has justifying his profession, though said with no expression or feeling to it, leaves a chill in your spine.

"The only type of killing that's safe is when a stranger kills a stranger. No motive. Nothing to link the victim to the executioner. Now why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody's willing to pay. It's business. Same as any other business. You murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, throat-cutting. Same thing. There are a lot of people around that would like to see lots of other people die a fast death... only they can't see to it themselves. They got conscience, religion, families. They're afraid of punishment here or hereafter. Me...[laughs] I can't be bothered with any of that nonsense."

The scene where we see Claude working out to keep in shape in part influenced Martin Scorsese to recreate a similar scene for Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. This is just one example of how much it has influenced on Scorsese. For his movie New York, New York in 1977, Scorsese had hired Lerner as the supervising editor. However Lerner passed away prior to the release, and Scorsese added a dedication in the film to Lerner. 

There is no devious murder plans or schemes or bloodshed; there are no elaborate chasing or fist fighting. It is clear that with small things to use and low budget locations, the director created a thriller that leaves viewer's mind boggled.

Often called as film-making to bare essentials, this sparse, witty-laced, contract killer movie is set apart from other film noirs. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Plot Reveals:

a. Notice Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe on the left side of the screen in this shot. It still exists in the same location - 17575 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272.

b. The abandoned movie studio location that George and Marc take Claude is a former Charlie Chaplin studio on La Brea. 

2) Sub-Plots:

a. Vince Edwards and Director Irving Lerner made another film together in 1959 titled City of Fear, another low budget film. 

3) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the opening credits, there are several toiletry items on top of the medicine cabinet in Claude's room. In subsequent scenes, the top of the medicine cabinet is bare.

b. When Claude and his handlers are driving around Los Angeles, it is very obvious that the scene is shot in a studio in front of a projection screen. You can see the studio lights reflected in Claude's sunglasses.


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