Murder by Contract

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Shot in seven days and decades ahead of its time, Murder by Contract is a lean, spare, ascetic, almost arthouse film noir from 1958 and was once described by Martin Scorsese as “The film that has influenced me most.”

It stars Vince Edwards, an actor who is not particularly well known but who is particularly good as the almost existential hero who weasels his way into the hitman business and ends up – in the film’s protracted climax – confronted with the job too far, the one revealing an actual heart beating away beneath his refrigerated exterior.

The setup is exquisitely done. Claude (Edwards) urgently insinuates himself into the good books of hitman fixer Mr Moon (Michael Granger), then carries out two wordless hits, the first on a guy in a barber’s chair, the second on a sick man on oxygen in hospital, before being handed the big one – the takedown of a witness in a big trial in Los Angeles.

The witness is called Billie, but Claude hears Billy with a Y, and it’s only when he becomes aware that he’s a she that he starts to quaver. “If I’d have known she was a woman I’d have asked double,” says Claude, who bleats about women being trouble but is perhaps not being as honest about his misgivings as he might be. His two minders – “messenger boys” they call themselves, though they’re obviously there to kill Claude if he mis-steps – are nonplussed and spend much of the back end of the movie working through all the various angles on Claude’s sudden reluctance to complete the job. Marc and George do a lot of useful explication, fill in the empty silences left by the taciturn Claude and are played by Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi as a loquacious prototype Tarantino double act, or updated versions of Shakespeare’s duplicitous, solicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Claude flanked by George and Marc in a car
Claude with minders George and Marc

Men undone by women is of course a classic noir trope, and in Billie we have the distilled essence of this, a woman whose mere femaleness is enough to defang the usually coolly murderous Claude.

Billie is played by Caprice Toriel with a cool hauteur that’s actually pivotal. She only made only one movie, and this is it.

Claude’s female trouble doesn’t start or end with Billie. Midway through there’s a funny interlude when Claude, posing as an insurance man, questions another woman, about her time working with Billie. The woman is drunk, out of control, and spends as much time sizing him up as a sexual conquest as she does answering his questions.

Director Irving Lerner grew up watching silent movies and you can tell. He lets the pictures tell the story but adds a modern, Italian neo-realist edge to his slimline, highly economical setups – that murder in the barber’s chair is a classic of compression – and he’s aided by Lucien Ballard, the brilliant cinematographer who was such an all-rounder that he never quite got his due.

Slimline soundtrack too, courtesy of Perry Botkin, who both composed and played it. It’s all on the electric guitar, lending a hint of The Third Man’s zither here and there, but also, again, an Italian edge of simple sophistication.

Those early scenes of Claude hanging about at home for the call to tell him he’s got the hitman gig, where Claude waits, works out and looks at himself in the mirror, Scorsese freely admits he lifted that for Taxi Driver. The borrowing didn’t stop there. Scorsese would also later lift Irving Lerner to supervise the editing on New York, New York.

Another movie “did you know” is that the deserted film set that Claude finds himself on at one point, where Marc and George have taken him for nefarious purposes, is Charlie Chaplin’s old studio.

None of this is necessary to extract full enjoyment from this remarkable film, which is only 81 minutes long but never feels like it’s coming up light, such is the tightness of the storytelling and precision of the acting. The opening and closing sections in particular are superb but the whole thing is worth watching several times just to drink in its elegance and sophistication.

Murder by Contract, part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I box set – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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