Thursday, October 31, 2013
Murder by Contract (1958)
Claude (Vince Edwards) has a good steady job but he’s a young man in a hurry. If he waits he will get the things he wants but he doesn’t want to wait and he think that guys who are prepared to wait are suckers. Vince isn’t going to be that kind of sucker. He’s going to have what he wants now. So he makes a career change. He decides to become a hitman.
At first he does pretty well. He gains a reputation as something of an eccentric - he dislikes having anything to do with guns. But he also gains a reputation for success. Claude is a careful planner and he takes an innovative and imaginative approach to the job.
In fact Claude has a decidedly odd attitude towards women. He dislikes them because he doesn’t understand them. Claude is an orderly man and women offend his sense of order.
The Williams job takes Claude to LA. His contacts there are George (Herschel Bernardi) and Marc (Phillip Pine). Billie Williams is a nightclub singer who had been the girlfriend of a top mobster and now she’s been persuaded to testify against him. Her testimony promises to be devastating which is why she’s had a contract taken out on her. George and Marc are key henchmen of the gangster in question and if he goes down they go down, so they have a personal interest in this contract.
The tone of the movie is somewhat odd. At times it seems to veer ever so slightly into the realm of black comedy with an existentialist flavour to it. At times it also seems to have a certain absurdist quality to it. It’s all done with admirable understatement but these elements seem to me to be clearly there. A modern film-maker would have bludgeoned the audience with these things but director Irving Lerner and screenwriter Ben Simcoe prefer to rely on subtlety. In fact there is so much in his movie that would have been ruined by the more obvious approach in vogue today.
On a superficial level Claude might not seem a typical noir protagonist but in fact he does fulfill many of the requirements of such a protagonist. He seems to lack the necessary desperation and fatalism but in his own way he’s a noir loser. He’s doomed by excessive self-confidence and ambition rather than lust for a femme fatale but his less obvious character flaws lead him to make the bad decisions we expect from a noir character. He thinks he is ideally qualified to be a hitman but he’s wrong.
It possibly could be argued that there was a distinctive “late noir protagonist” and that Claude in this movie and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success are representative of the type. Those who like to take a particular political view of the world, the view that is so very popular in film schools and academia in general today, will doubtless try to argue that Claude is a victim of the American Dream. In fact Claude is a victim of his own ambition. There always have been and always will be men who think they can take a shortcut to success and that’s merely a common human weakness, a reflection of human nature rather than of society. If there’s one thing that unites film noir protagonists it’s an unwillingness to take responsibility for their own dumb decisions.
The strange but effective guitar score, clearly influenced by The Third Man, should also be mentioned.
The transfer (from the Columbia Film Noir Classics I boxed set) is anamorphic and it’s excellent. The only extra of note is a brief introduction by Martin Scorcese which is a pity since this movie would have provided plenty of material for a commentary track.
Murder by Contract is offbeat noir but it’s really a little gem of a movie in its own odd way. Very highly recommended.