Murder by Contract (1958)

Murder by Contract (1958) is classic hitman film noir starring Vince Edwards and directed by Irving Lerner. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Ben Maddow did uncredited work on the film which looks at an existentialist and nihilist hit man assigned to kill a woman.

Famous for its brand-new-at-the-time raw style, employed by Irving Lerner, Murder By Contract is considered a B-movie classic, lauded by Martin Scorsese and others for its almost home-made independent style. 

It’s a little like Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence insofar as everything that it lacks in polish, it makes up for in commitment and style.

Vince Edwards, who played Val in Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), plays Claude, a motivated loner on the up, who almost in the style of a Dostoyevsky or Camus here, decides that he wants to be a contract killer.

Claude's plan is to earn enough money to buy a house on a lake far away from the mundane efforts of daily life, and his whole notion is that he uses his brains rather than weapons, avoiding any obvious clues or stupidities that might lead the police to track him down.

This all goes very well, and he carries out a few successful jobs before being sent to Los Angeles to assassinate a nightclub performer (Billie Williams) who is about to testify in court against a colleague of Claude’s boss. 

Vince Edwards in Murder By Contract (1958)

With the trial a few days away, Claude decides to act up a little,k and does some sightseeing around Hollywood, only to discover that this time might have been better spent actually doing his job, when the girl proves harder to kill than he thought.

This is where one of the cool existential angles of Murder By Contract comes into his own, as Claude is clearly in his own mind a kind of superman, a Nietzschean killer who is far above and ahead of anyone around him. 

Vince Edwards in Murder By Contract (1958)

It's this that leads in part to Claude's sight-seeing arrogance, although his relationship with the two gangland mooks that are sent to babysit him, is important too, and it's a relationship that forms the backbone of the picture.

As well as feeling superior to the mass of surrounding humanity, Claude has a desire to bug the hell out of his two chaperones. He doesn't even much feel the need to prove anything to them, but merely drags them along on his exploits as if he were a spoiled princeling and they were retainers, bound to put up with his every whim.

This frustrating circumstance creates both a fine and ongoing tension as well as the atmosphere of existential questioning — why can't a young person be anything they want to be — become a killer and rise above the humans around them — to something so superior that morality is a question that never need be answered — entirely in the eye of the beholder? 

As for Claude's target, the fact that she is a woman reveals a deep weakness within Claude, and it turns out that as well as a hater of humanity — suggested but not explicit — he is also lives in a grave state of doubt about that half of humanity known as women.

It's not just that police guard his target day and night — Claude’s concern is the fact of her femininity because he thinks that women are unpredictable and must by nature be more complicated as targets. 

Claude is unwilling to carry a gun, another sign of his feeling of superiority, but also a clever tactic in maintaining his own safety. Claude has an extremely casual approach to the business of murder, which frustrates those around him, but signals something about the youth trends of the later 1950s, when the culture of the teenager was fully and rebelliously formed, and was facing dead ahead into trouble when it could, set on rejecting as much of the century's previous authority as was possible.

The result is a stark and unsentimental character in a stark and unsentimental film, which digs hard into the disturbing feeling of detachment that while appropriate for a killer, was threatening to undo the culture as a whole.

With its sparse and gritty style, Murder By Contract was likely ahead of its time, and the sense of cool brought about by the out and out nihilism, was also smoothly played out  to the final beat.

Murder By Contract should very likely be called a post-noir movie, probably for the fact that the weakness and paranoia of the lead played by Vince Edwards were not manifest. Instead, the hitman is  taciturn and self-absorbed, and makes an effort to be hyper-professional, an effort which creates a kind of deadpan comedy, all balanced by a jauntily twanging and ambling guitar score by Perry Botkin which is in a way reminiscent of the score of The Third Man (1949)

The similarities between Murder by Contract and Taxi Driver are manifest, as Claude follows a tough and unbending routine of exercise, while his self-discipline focuses on emotional isolation and adherence to strict codes of his own creation. 

The mob bosses in Murder By Contract love him for this, but something about Los Angeles seems to fry this routine a little — that and the introduction of women into the picture. Claude's misogyny is  to Put the Zap on Claude’s Brain: underneath the method is a broad streak of madness, a control freak who can indeed freak out when things don’t go his way.

Compared to all of the film noir canon Murder By Contract is refreshingly modern, despite it being a low-budget item created to fill out double bills. 

We barely get any idea about Claude's past, and it doesn't seem to be troubled — he just does not like society. He has a clean police record and is solid enough a citizen to want to live in a lakeside house on the Ohio River. 

In an intimate situation, women disgust this man however. This is manifest in this little speech:

The human female is descended from the monkey, and monkeys are about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on, it just can’t stand it not to know about it. Same thing with a woman.

His view on working with women as targets is equally bleak:

It’s not a matter of sex, it’s a matter of money. If I’d-a known it was a woman, I’d’ve asked double. I don’t like women. They don’t stand still. When they move, it’s hard to figure out why or wherefore. They’re not dependable. It’s tough to kill somebody who’s not dependable.

After wasting his time hitting golf balls and hanging about at the beach, Claude tries to assassinate the woman with a rifle, shooting her when she opens the front door. 

Claude celebrates by hiring a hooker to come to his motel room but this only amplifies his disgust for and he tells her to wipe off her lipstick. 

Kathie Browne and Vince Edwards in Murder by Contract (1958)

Claude makes three attempts to complete the contract, and just when he is about to strangle Billie, the target, he stops. The question remains as to why can’t he do it. We don't know if he has found respect at last or if he has suddenly found a conscience.

But he crawls back into the culvert which gained him access to the house, and from this trap, he does not emerge. 

Such is the fate of the late 50s existential hero. Claude states this empty and business like ethic in an early monologue:

The only type killing that’s safe is when a stranger kills a stranger. No motive. Nothing to link the victim to the executioner. Now why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody’s willing to pay. It’s business. Same as any other business. You murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, throat-cutting. Same thing. There are a lot of people around that would like to see lots of other people die a fast death…only they can’t see to it themselves. They got conscience, religion, families. They’re afraid of punishment here or hereafter.

He adds to this:

I can’t be bothered with any of that nonsense, I look at it like a good business. The risk is high but so is the profit.

The truth is in this film noir, that a kill is equated to a sale or a transaction. The words business, contract, high risk, price cutting and profit, all show this. In a way the past of film noir is delusion, when there was reason for madness, and reason for murder, and a morality that pervaded by explaining everything. Yet what is amazing about this late, late noir is that the existential progress and cold capitalist fantasy falls foul of the toxic male's perennial foil: woman

Murder by Contract remains a cult low budget film, fascinating and detached to the point of boredom at times. Claude the killer is not a film noir man. He isn't especially fascinating or complex, but he is hardened and determined. 

The story is told in such rapid and matter-of-fact style with so much location shooting and the avoidance of any sense of place, or mood and ambiance is both drab and defining and extremely cold, in contrast to the California sun which seems to be a part of his undoing.

With this in mind, later era classic film noir presents an uncomfortable transition, almost as if the fun of the 1940s is forced to examine itself under an existential light, which finds it growing up into a tortured teen, the exact kind of moody trouble exemplified by Rebel Without A Cause.

The answers are bleak and passionless, and never focused on emotion or even morality — but on a dog-eat-dog Darwinian view of the world. Mellow fantasy was never going to pay in crime by the end of the 1950s, when film noir was about to complete its run by coming of age in a light and fogless environment where men faced the increasingly complex 20th century by making machines of themselves, and women's roles regressed into colder and colder attitudes, as simply in this case by becoming victims and little else.

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