Friday, June 3, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Murder by Contract (1958)

Murder by Contract (1958) ****
Directed by: Irving Lerner.
Written by: Ben Maddow & Ben Simcoe.
Starring: Vince Edwards (Claude), Phillip Pine (Marc), Herschel Bernardi (George), Caprice Toriel (Billie Williams), Michael Granger (Mr. Moon), Kathie Browne (Mary).

Murder by Contract is a rather bizarre, brilliant film noir from 1958. It doesn’t quite seem like many other American noirs of the time period – it almost feels like an European art film. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the work French director Jean Pierre Melville, particularly Le Samorai, but also other European directors, who didn’t work in the crime genre at all. This is a film more concerned with its lead character, brilliantly played by Vince Edwards, than about its plot. For those few people like myself who liked Anton Corbjn’s The American, with George Clooney, last year, you’ll definitely want to check out Murder by Contract.

The story is about a well educated young man, Claude (Edwards) who has a decent job, but turns to a life of crime anyway. But he doesn’t become a petty street criminal, but wants to become a contract killer. The only thing he wants is to buy a house on the Ohio river, but he knows if he remains a wage slave, he’ll never get there. He is set up with a meeting with Mr. Moon, and his cold, calculating demeanor impresses the older man – who agrees to take him on as one of his men. He then makes Claude wait in a hotel for two weeks, where he does little but work out and wait (in a feature on the DVD, Martin Scorsese talks of how these scenes influences the scenes in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle sits around in his own small room). When he does get the call, we watch his first few jobs – how cold and ruthlessly efficient he is at killing. He quickly gains a reputation for being reliable. Which is why is sent out to LA, given a huge sum of money ($5,000) to kill a witness in an upcoming mob trial. He isn’t worried about the job – he sits back and takes his time, infuriating the two men who are his handlers out there. The one thing that gets to him is that the intended victim is a woman.

Director Irving Lerner is not very well known. On IMDB, he only has 18 directing credits, including 5 documentary shorts from the 1940s along with work on four different TV shows from the 1960s. Based on the evidence in Murder by Contract, I’m not sure why he didn’t get more film work. Perhaps its because the film is so different from most other B movies of its time. It is cold and calculated, it has moments where Lerner is content to simply sit back and observe the actions – scenes that are entirely dialogue driven that seem to have little to do with the plot. It doesn’t surprise me that a young Martin Scorsese, who in just a few years would embrace the work of Antonnini and Godard, would find Murder by Contract such an exciting, original film when he saw it at the age of 16. He was already a major film buff at that time, looking for different films. But it also would not surprise me to find out that many thought the film was slow, or perhaps even pretentious at the time. Looking at it now, with its cold feel, long takes, haunting guitar driven score and brutal violence (for its time anyway – this is a film that shows practically nothing violent, but feels very violent) that seems downright modern. It hasn’t aged a bit in the 50 years since it was made.

Murder by Contract is a great film. It is one of those great films that you have to approach purely based on what is there on screen, and not through what you know of the filmmaker himself. Lerner, although extremely talented, never really got to make another great film. But in Murder by Contract, he got everything right and made a small masterwork. Most directors never get that chance.

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