Murder by Contract - 1958
Director(s): Irving Lerner
Writer(s): Ben Simcoe
Cinematography by: Lucien Ballard
Editor(s): Carlo Lodato
Cast: Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel, Michael Granger and Kathie Browne
Every now and again, I am watching an interview of my cinematic heroes, and I jot down a film they site as influential or as one of their favorites. A few weeks ago, I heard Martin Scorsese praise Irving Lerner economic-style in 1958's noir classic; Murder by Contract. So, I jotted it down, and here we are thanks to the Criterion Channel - let's talk about it.
The story follows Claude (Edwards) a smart and calculated man that decides to become a contract killer — quickly becoming the "go-to" killer of the organization, "closing" contract after contract. Claude is sent to California to close out a high-profile contract of Billie Williams (Toriel) a former night-club jazz performer, turned state's witness. Claude's window is tight, as she is set to testify against someone high up in his organization, and she is currently under police protection.
Ben Simcoe's script while on the surface is as straightforward as the noir genre can get, the nuance underneath the character of Claude is beyond compelling. The character comes across calm, well-mannered and highly educated - I might go as far as saying he is "cool" - he is a flat-out psychopath that approaches the act of murder as a business venture. Simcoe also sets up Claude in the beginning as this perfect killer that nothing can get in his way, lulling audiences into a false sense of confidence - only to pull the rug from under them as his fails multiple times to kill Billie. Despite the film being mainly from the perspective of Claude, I found myself rooting for Billie - not sure if this was their intent, but I wanted this cold-blooded killer to fail (I am weird like that).
Irving Lerner utilized each scene to either to drive Claude's arch or the plot forward, never losing focus of the narrative. Lerner employs creative shots, and cinematographer Lucien Ballard adds the standard flat look shrouded in shadows typical of the noir genre. I loved the use of the musical score provided by Perry Botkin Sr. - going from building tension through each of the actions that push the characters to their impending doom, to highlighting certain events to heighten the urgency of Claude. Since I have mentioned his role so many times, I have to say a few words about Vince Edwards' performance - as he straddles the line between the cool protagonist, typical of a Hollywood film, and a killer that doesn't bat an eye when it comes to taking the life of another human being. Edwards final moments of him finally having a human moment was delivered perfectly, and it was the only moment I was on his side.
Murder by Contract at times feels ageless, as you connect with the characters and you are fully invested - and it also feels like the perfect example of the golden age of the noir genre. The story never loses your attention as it goes from point A to point B without wasting a single second thanks to Lerner's direction and Carlo Lodato's editing. Edwards oozes cool, even though you are deeply disturbed by him, and his actions throughout the film - making the ending bittersweet and poignant.
Murder by Contract is a Glass Half Full.
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