Movie Review: Murder By Contract (1958)

What did I watch: The 1958 noir film Murder By Contract starring Vince Edwards, on the youtube.

I don’t know who that is. He played a doctor on TV. There’s only a handful of people in this film. It was cowritten by Ben Maddow who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Asphalt Jungle. Edwards & director Irving Lerner would work together on another film before Edwards landed a steady gig on TV in the 60’s.

So what does this Edwards guy do in this movie? Review murder contracts? Edwards plays Claude, a young man who has decided to become a contract killer. He approaches someone who has connections to the underground, looking for that kind of work, so he can pay off a house in a flyover state in a few years, as opposed to getting a regular shmoe job and work for 30 years. He has prepared for this job by basically becoming an Albert Camus character, claiming to have conditioned himself mentally while living simply to be detached from everyone and everything.

After a few silent but deadly hits for an unseen movie mafia, Claude is flown to California and is escorted by two nebbish goons who want to fill Claude in on his next job. Claude has the pair drive him around to sightsee and enjoy the beach, ignoring their persistent reminders that Claude has someone to murder, and soon. Claude has some great putdowns on the two, mocking their incompetence and anxiousness over their illegal activities. They call him Superman for his attitude, probably not knowing that Claude wants to be the Nietzchean Superman who uses his standalone existence to empower his murder streak. Claude expounds several deep thoughts, including a great discussion with one of the nerdy goons on how it’s legal to follow orders to kill for your country, but illegal to kill for money, or just your fellow man in general…

Why golly, sounds like there’s some great philosophical overtones in this film! Well, things hit a snag once Claude reluctantly agrees to find out who his target is. It’s a… Woman.

murderbycontractweb

This is pretty much Claude’s reaction. His whole approach to homicide is that men are predictable, and therefore it’s easy to find their pattern and then use that against them. Just look at the poster. Women can’t make up their own minds, according to Claude, and therefore are harder to kill than Rasputin.

So, Claude doubles down on his planning, with no one bringing up how much time he’s wasted (why not just throw in a bit why he never asks for directions? Amiright ladies? Amiright?). This movie doubles down on the sexism when the potential victim, who is under house arrest and police surveillance, demands a female guard, because the dude cops creep her out. So there’s a changing of the guard, a tough as nails lady cop comes in, and what’s the first thing she does? She sees the potential victim’s robe discarded on a chair…AND IMMEDIATELY TRIES IT ON.

Because now there’s TWO unpredictable women, and not because he ever bothered to check, Claude kills the lady cop, thinking he’s done his job, and makes plans to leave. He finds out through the grapevine, and then by the nerdy goons, that he killed the wrong person. He disposes of the goons and then heads to the target’s home, to finish the job.

At no point does our unpredictable damsel in distress zip around her house like Daffy Duck, but Claude does lose his cool and is chased by police, cornered in a sewer like a powerless version of Mighty Mouse instead of the invincible Superman.

So, what it good? The story was okay. The dark philosophy even when presented in such blatant ways sounds feasible coming out of Edwards, you almost believe his moral confidence in his remorselessness. It’s also very well made. I don’t know if I believe it was made in 7 days. As far as production goes, this timeframe would put Contract in the same category as DETOUR, another noir crime film that is very loved, filmed on the cheap, and supposedly filmed incredibly quickly. If you’re impressed with Detour’s results, this movie should wow you. (My opinion: this is far superior.) There’s more locations, for starters, and more implied passing of time from scene to scene. Both movies are different, not just darker from other films of their time, but Murder By Contract has a lot more going on than just a guy stuck in a hotel room with a conniving blackmailer, which is what Detour devolves into. Claude’s daytrips at the expense of his escorts is a clever way to pad out the running time, but it’s still a tight movie. It’s also a huge influence on Martin Scorsese (the director, Irving Lerner, worked on one of Scorsese’s early films), who praises the hard work that went into such a minimalist story & style.

Did the lady victim ever stop being so damn random and develop routines? I mean, c’mon already. I can’t find anything about Caprice Toriel, the victim. This seems to be her only movie. If you know more about her, let me know!

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