943 (85). Murder by Contract (1958, Irving Lerner)

Screened Wednesday December 16 2008 on VHS in New York NY TSPDT rank #726 IMDb

Irving Lerner hard-sells an implausible premise of Claude, a novice contract killer (Vince Edwards, an outwardly tougher but equally brittle Montgomery Clift type. ) working his way at record speed to a major league hit, much in the way Claude sells himself to his client: memorable tough-talking one-liners offset by gestural terseness. Claude's preparation and execution of his new trade is a series of lizard-cool rituals shot and edited with the exactitude of a metronome, actions alternating with shots of clocks and scribbled notes adding dollar figures for each mission accomplished, as mesmerizing as a video game in its lockstep rhythm of rounds and rewards.

For his big hit, Lerner introduces two Abbot and Costello sidekicks who ostensibly support and monitor Claude, but practically serve as on-screen audience surrogates analyzing the film noir hero standing in their midst. Flabbergasted by Claude's super-cool reluctance to execute the hit, the sidekicks engage in an extended comic give-and-take, a brilliant device that co-opts the audience's fragile suspension of disbelief by giving voice to it, while building up near-impossible expectations of Claude's hitman abilities. It's when Claude discovers late in the game that his target is a woman that his game plan starts to crumble, leading to a succumbing of linear rationalism to crazed impulse worthy of Kubrick. In terms of scale, Murder by Contract is a modest chamber piece compared to The Killing's multi-character symphony, but it cuts deeper into the same heart of male self-destructiveness underlying its most outrageous aspirations.

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Murder by Contract on the TSPDT 1000:

Andrew Rector, Senses of Cinema (2002) Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007) Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007) Harun Farocki, Facets (2003) Jorge Didaco, Senses of Cinema (2003) ? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) ? Martin Scorsese, Guilty Pleasures (1998) ? Martin Scorsese, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) ? National Society of Film Critics, The B List: Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love (2008)

Memorable quotes:

"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, it's throat-cutting. Same thing."

"If I'd have known it was a woman I would have asked double. I don't like women. They don't stand still. When they move it's hard to figure why or wherefore. They're not dependable. It's tough to kill somebody not dependable."

"The human female is descended from the monkey. A

Listen to a podcast on Murder by Contract at The Lost Picture Show with Julian and John

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 marvelous 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, "Martin Scorsese's Guilty Pleasures," Film Comment, May-June 1998

This rarely screened 1958 gem about the mind of a contract killer is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite thrillers, and it’s easy to see why. The film follows an existential hipster (Vince Edwards) who coolly regards his work as a business until he gets thrown by a big-time assignment to rub out a woman about to testify in court. Neither the screenwriter (Ben Simcoe) nor the director (Irving Lerner) ever made it big, but here they achieved something nearly perfect–with a memorable guitar score, a witty feeling for character, dialogue, and narrative ellipsis, and a lean, purposeful style. Lucien Ballard did the black-and-white cinematography.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

A terrific, no-nonsense B movie which comes on like something by Jean-Pierre Melville: cool, calm and dispassionate. Edwards is Claude, a technician who goes into crime as a career move, to 'improve himself'. A series of hits later, he looks every inch the professional assassin, confident enough to take his time, competent enough not to fear detection. It isn't entirely his fault if something goes wrong on the big contract... Lerner and his superb cameraman, Lucien Ballard, make the most of a shoestring budget to produce a taut, spare, amoral film; it doesn't look restricted, it looks restrained. Well ahead of its time, too.

- Time Out Movie Guide

The originality of this B-picture, shot in only a few days, lies in its depiction of a hired killer as a technician, a man who is in a steady job but wants to 'better' himself and make big money, and who outwardly and officially is the essence of white-collar respectability. The film's distinctiveness stems from its coolness of tone, which is suitably complemented by Perry Botkin's guitar accompaniment.

- Phil Hardy, British Film Institute, The BFI Companion to Crime. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997. Page 234

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...

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...

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.

- Jay Carr, Turner Classic Movies

This neglected low-budget B/W noir film from the 1950s is a beaut, an absolutely superb thriller. It reminds me so much of Jean-Pierre Melville's great existentialist character study film noir called Le Samurai (67), where the point of the film remains less on the story and more on how the protagonist is suave and calculatingly dispassionate...

This is a perfectly nuanced film with the atmospheric noir cinematography by Lucien Ballard, plus a brilliantly appropriate one-man guitar musical arrangement heard in the background. The film also had a beautiful feel for who the character is and the situation he was in. There were no phony contrivances, as everything felt natural. They don't make noir films better than this. Interestingly enough, the director and screenwriter never went on to do something even close to the quality this B- film achieved, while this role deservedly catapulted Vince Edwards career into stardom. Martin Scorsese said this was the film that influenced him most when he made "Mean Streets."

- Dennis Schwartz

There’s an original approach to the framing of shots (a floor level view of bound and gagged barbershop employees as Edwards prepares to cut the throat of an unsuspecting victim in the front of the shop). Ballard also moves smoothly from the outdoors (Edwards and two gangster clients tooling around Los Angeles in a convertible) to long static takes indoors in which Edward’s alienated psychological state is subtly revealed through his body language and actions. The montage sequence where we observe him over a two week period never leaving his room while he waits for a client’s phone call is masterful and will obviously remind you of Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER and maybe even Jef Costello in LE SAMOURAI. He does pull-ups from a closet rod, push-ups off two chairs, he prepares for bed repeatedly, and he calls in food orders and lays out the measy dime tips on the cardtable in front of him, parsing one out to each delivery boy like a machine.

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog

There is an effortless lightness of touch to this film, a lightness which begins with the crisp editing and directorial efficiencies praised by Scorsese 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, Big House Film

Another Missing Link film, this one informing the steely-eyed, pretensions-to-philosophy hitman subgenre (echoing especially now with current online rumbles over the Coens’ No Country for Old Men). This film has the isolated astringency of European art-house films of the time (the score, titles, and opening scene are distinctly European for this time period, probably Italian-influenced), and completes the picture by saddling our cold-blooded hitman “hero” with a pair of comical, worrying overseers from the Syndicate (or Organization, or whatever these 1950s movies lovingly called the Nation Wide Mob). Minimal editing within a scene, Lerner sticking to single shot, high-ish angle setups give the film a stern, singular, and terse cinematic vernacular. While the staging and acting sometimes slides into the silly, the L.A. of 1958 is too fascinating, Lerner’s compositions to often good (Lucien Ballard inexplicably shooting this no-name B-film), and, like so many existentialism-influenced films that began appearing around this time, it’s got a sublimely poetic-fatalist ending that keeps the whole thing well above an unseen curiosity.

- Daniel Kasman

About Irving Lerner


Murder by Contract is a minor classic of murderous understatement, and is all that need be said about Irving Lerner's career. Perhaps it is a mistake to treat films like Murder by Contract as means to an end or as overtures to grand operas. A director, like any artist, may have but one good work in his system. Often the promising work turns out to be the ultimate work, and Murder by Contract seems to fall into that category.

- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Published by Da Capo Press, 1996. Page 215

After seeing MURDER BY CONTRACT for the first time I wanted to find out more about Lerner and was amazed to see how many different types of films he had worked on and in different capacities. Here was a former research editor for Columbia University’s Encyclopedia of Social Sciences who ended up becoming the head of New York University’s Educational Film Institute after World War II. He then hooked up with director Joseph Strick (THE SAVAGE EYE) on a short documentary, MUSCLE BEACH (1948), and then on his own made SUICIDE ATTACK, a 1951 documentary that utilized captured Japanese footage to show WWII (especially the live combat) from the Japanese point of view. After that, Lerner entered the B movie industry but more on that in part two. He also produced several documentaries including TO HEAR YOUR BANJO PLAY (1947) which he co-directed with the great Willard Van Dyke (THE CITY, 1938) and featured Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, & Sonny Terry & Brownee McGhee among others and the big budget Western CUSTER OF THE WEST (1967) starring Robert Shaw. He even dabbled in producing some spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef – CAPTAIN APACHE (1971) and BAD MAN’S RIVER (1971).

But it gets weirder. He served as a technical advisor on both ROBOT MONSTER (1953) and Anthony Mann’s GOD’S LITTLE ACRE (1953). He worked as an associate editor on EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973), the Dalton Trumbo scripted dramatization of the plot to assassinate President Kennedy. He worked as an actor in Jose Luis Borau’s HAY QUE MATAR A B. (1975, aka “B Must Die) opposite Darren McGavin, Stephane Audran, and Patricia Neal. I swear I am not hallucinating! To top it off he served as an uncredited editor on Kubrick’s SPARTACUS as well as Fred Haines’s 1974 film adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s STEPPENWOLF and the documentary MUSTANG: THE HOUSE THAT JOE BUILT (1978), Robert Guralnick’s documentary on America’s first legal brothel – in Nevada. WHAT? Who the heck is this guy? Next week I’ll cover some of his other films as a director including the follow-up to MURDER BY CONTRACT – CITY OF FEAR (1959).

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog

About Vince Edwards

Poor Vince has never gotten much respect as an actor but that’s because most people only remember his reserved but compassionate one-note performance as “Ben Casey,” the popular TV medical series that ran from 1961-1966. MURDER BY CONTRACT was the role he was born to play and to state the obvious Vince was never the best choice to play goody-two-shoes leading men. Almost every line of dialogue the misogynistic Claude delivers in this film is quotable – if you’re drunk at a stag party circa 1958: “The human female is descended from a monkey!” Vince was also quite memorable as the scariest of the three thugs terrorizing Jack Kelly’s family in THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955) – scarier even than his hoodlum co-star John Cassavetes whose film TOO LATE BLUES he would appear in in 1961. He’s also cool and devious in Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956) as the young hot shot who’s double-crossing Elisha Cook, Jr. in a heist ripoff with Cook’s wife, Marie Windsor. And he popped up in some prestige projects too such as I AM A CAMERA (1955, based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”, the basis for CABARET), the Oscar winning THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957) and Carl Foreman’s war epic THE VICTORS (1963).

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog