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Murder by Contract
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,Murder By Contract

Murder By Contract

When Martin Scorsese dedicated New York, New York to the memory of Irving Lerner (1909-1976), it wasn't because Scorsese's somber, fatalistic musical had anything in common with Lerner's handful of noirs, apart from spiritual darkness. Of Lerner's small output, the film that Scorsese was most influenced by, and cited frequently, was Murder by Contract (1958). A quickie shot in eight days on a microscopic budget, it's a potent reminder of how less can be more, centered on Vince Edwards' loner killer for hire. Cool on the outside, tightly coiled on the inside, Edwards' Claude, priding himself on having put his emotions on ice, exemplifies a sort of cusp noir, a harbinger of postwar American change.

There's a surliness in Edwards' bottled-up Claude (it later served him well as TV's Ben Casey, which ran from 1961-1966, with Lerner directing 13 of its 153 episodes). But Claude is more about control, and self-control, than anything else, at least at the outset. In a deadpan subverting of the American dream, he declares that he just wants to buy a house on the Ohio River and will be able to pay for it much faster as an assassin, at $500 a pop, than as a wage slave. His intro to a prospective client parodies a corporate job interview. When he's told to go home and wait for the phone to ring, he does so for two weeks, in his monk's cell of a furnished room, passing the time exercising and immersing himself in minutely detailed routine.

When the call comes, he's ready. Claude's meticulousness extends to killing only with legal weapons – a knife, his hands, rope, a razor. In every respect save vocationally, he's scrupulously law-abiding. He never speeds, doesn't carry a gun. He's a careful craftsman whose attention to detail is always rendered discreetly – we never see the killings, only Claude advancing on his victims as they -- and we -- yield to blackouts, or the sounds of death off screen. Never asking questions, Claude is the model servitor, patiently executing hit after hit, recording $500 payment after $500 payment on a little pad, edging, step by step, toward his retirement cottage, a la Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

But John Huston's noir landmark and Lerner's taut little study couldn't be more different in their underlying assumptions and even cinematic language. The documentary approach that found its way into mainstream American film during and after the war was more pronounced by the late '50s. Besides, Lerner, the New York-born leftist intellectual, came from making anthropological films at NYU. While Huston was making the now-classic combat documentary, The Battle of San Pietro, in 1944, Lerner shot a documentary on the legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini. While The Asphalt Jungle, with its nocturnal world of shadows and rain-slicked streets, was steeped in the noir lexicon, Murder by Contract stood the visual language of noir on its ear by dragging it into the sunlight.

There's a seismic change in tone and focus when the film shifts from the East, where Claude's killings had gone off without a hitch, to Los Angeles. It's a big career opportunity for Claude, whose efficiency with smaller fry -- including the man who originally hired him (Michael Granger's Mr. Moon) -- has led him up the ladder to a $5000 payday for killing a gangster's former girlfriend (Caprice Toriel, whose character blurs gender-role lines by being named Billie). She's about to deliver damaging testimony to a grand jury. Avoiding Union Station, the taciturn is met at the train in Glendale by mob grunts Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine. They're comic relief, Shakespearean clowns, with their baffled grumbling at his inscrutable ways. But his insistence on spending the first few days driving around sightseeing, seemingly at random, isn't just a show of nonchalance and a way to reduce the pressure. He wants to make sure they're not being followed.

When he is sure, he goes into action, faced with assassinating a woman barricaded inside her house in the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by police guards, inside and outside. It's during the setup of the job, and Claude's implementation of his plan, that the film's thematic shocks come clear. The great Lucien Ballard, most famous for shooting Sam Peckinpah's wide-screen epics, started by loading trucks at Paramount and worked his way up to director of cinematography for five years at Columbia when it was a B-studio. He knew how to shoot with economy, and he knew the language of several genres, noir included. What's impressive is that he used so much natural light to make the film's point.

What anthropologically-trained Lerner tapped into was American postwar change. Where historians saw an age of conformity, Lerner saw a release of pent-up energies, a metaphysical sprawl that was soon to have its analogue in suburban sprawl. In his brilliant study, Film Noir: The Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg usefully makes a distinction between the centripetal force of the classic noir of the cities, with everything, including women trapped in male sexualizing of women's roles, pulled toward the city's dark center, and the centrifugal forces of the postwar world, with everything spiraling outward, into the suburbs and away from older role models.

Thus, Billie, his target, although superficially trapped in her own house, is there out of choice. It's her space, however compromised. Strong-willed enough to testify against powerful killers, she's also strong enough to refuse protective custody in a safe jail cell and insist that the guardians of public morality guard her in her own house, where she can play her piano, and flash a temperament the police around her are forced to respect. She is, in short, anything but a sitting duck. Analogue for a new kind of woman who wasn't to fully emerge for another generation, she's nevertheless a prototype. Claude's problem, as his employers grow ever more anxious, is that he literally can't get to her, especially after another woman intervenes.

Glowering, craggy-browed Edwards (Lerner used him again in his follow-up noir, City of Fear, 1959) begins to show signs that his controlled exterior is beginning to crumble. "I don't like women," Claude snarls. "They're not dependable. I don't like killing people who're not dependable." Leaving aside the psycho-sexual dynamic of which Claude seems at best dimly aware, this particular woman is especially unruly. The camera tracks Claude's consternation. L.A.'s relentless, atomizing glare becomes a visual analog to the erosion of the control that the hitherto cool hit man had extended over the spaces where he dealt out death with assurance. As he clambers through the scrubby hills overlooking her house, with Ballard's camera pulling back and tracking him from a distance, we realize that the film is exchanging intimacy for a distanced study of the technician of death as a scrambling animal. We feel desperation in Claude for the first time. Maybe his sniper scope plan won't work. Maybe he'll have to improvise (he's aware that not successfully making the kill is his own death warrant), literally and figuratively penetrating the house, penetrating his quarry's space. And if he does, who'll end up as the victim?

Clean, lean and mean, tight, tense and satisfyingly reverberant, Murder by Contract vaults over its Poverty Row origins. We can understand why the young Scorsese was much more taken by it than by the A-movie on the double bill he saw. We see in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) Travis Bickle's genuflections to Edwards' ascetic preparations. Scorsese says he recalled Perry Botkin's potent music for Murder by Contract – a single guitar, which Botkin played, redolent with hints of '50s Italo-pop and Anton Karas's zither music for The Third Man (1949). Howard Shore devised a similarly guitar-flavored score that underlined the web-of-fate element in Scorsese's Oscar®-winning The Departed (2006). In its pared-down imperative, and its distant early warning signals of postwar societal upheaval, Murder by Contract, with its fade to white, is a big little film noir turned film blanc.

Producer: Leon Chooluck
Director: Irving Lerner
Screenplay: Ben Maddow, Ben Simcoe
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editing: Carlo Lodato
Art Direction: Jack Poplin
Music: Perry Botkin, Jr.
Cast: Vince Edwards (Claude), Phillip Pine (Marc), Herschel Bernardi (George), Caprice Toriel (Billie Williams), Michael Granger (Mr. Moon), Kathie Browne (Secretary/Party Girl).
BW-81m Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jay Carr

SOURCES:
Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by Ian Christie and David Thompson
A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thompson
Citizen Bickle, or the Allusive Taxi Driver: Uses of Intertextuality, John Thurman
Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg
Interview with Martin Scorsese, by Stephen Holden, New York Times, May 21, 1993
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