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MURDER BY CONTRACT

(1958)

Starring Vince Edwards, Herschel Bernardi; dir: Irving Lerner

There is an effortless lightness of touch to this film, a lightness which begins with the crisp editing and directorial efficiencies praised by Scorsese (see below *) and continues via transference to Vince (Ben Casey) Edwards’ portrayal of Claude, the hitman whose deadpan existentialism infuriates his mob handlers as much as it creases up audiences who feel they are in on the gag. His zen philosophising on ‘the assassin worldview’ links Murder By Contract to the This Gun For Hire archetype of the lone killer with a higher purpose even as it satirises it.

With this sure touch goes perfect balance. The opening scenes have a noir darkness (courtesy veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard) while the establishing ‘hits’ are very deftly sketched in (check the Coen Bros’ comparable barbershop scene in their 2001 genre homage The Man Who Wasn’t There), but we know little of Claude’s persona here. It’s only in the main body of the film, when the plot shifts from New York to California and the associated brightness of sunny location shooting, that the strains of Claude’s idiosyncrasies emerge and supply enough gravity to balance the light. Music continues this dualism, with nothing more than a spare, Third Man-like Mediterranean guitar picking that alternates with an insistent, near-techno, pulse in the scenes of tension.

Without Claude’s inscrutable delaying tactics, lateral-thinking work ethic and impossibly conflicted gender politics (which tie him up in knots on discovering his West Coast target is – gasp! – a woman) Murder By Contract wouldn’t rise above the level of forgotten 50s TV crime shows. Its clean lines and simplicity schematize gangland behaviour (unrealistically of course) into neat roles which are comic book reassuring.

Even so the film falters noticeably after Claude’s gangland minders outlive their usefulness and he turns his talents in their direction. But even this is handled with felicitous irony, the Hollywood backlot where Claude dispatches his erstwhile handlers underscoring the play-acting dimension to the superficiality of it all.

Like every version of the Gun For Hire archetype (through variants like 1974’s The Conversation right up to 1999’s Ghost Dog), it’s the humanising entry of feelings into his detached makeup that proves the protagonist’s undoing. Claude’s delayed ‘gratification’ of the hit, conflated with his female aversion, is a psycho-sexual conundrum that makes Murder By Contract enduringly intriguing. No wonder Scorsese likes it!

-    Roger Westcombe

* "This is the film that has influenced me most. I had a clip out of it in Mean Streets but had to take it out: it was too long, and a little too esoteric. And there's a getting-in-shape sequence that's very much like the one in Taxi Driver. The spirit of Murder By Contract has a lot to do with Taxi Driver. Lerner was an artist who knew how to do things in shorthand, like Bresson and Godard. The film puts us all to shame with its economy of style, especially in the barbershop murder at the beginning. Vince Edwards gives a marvellous performance as the killer who couldn't murder a woman. Murder By Contract was a favorite of neighborhood guys who didn't know anything about movies. They just liked the film because they recognized something unique about it."

- Martin Scorsese     

source: http://monsite.ifrance.com/Samcinema/guiltypleasures.htm