Friday, February 22, 2019

Noir City 2019: Murder by Contract

Wednesday was day six of Noir City 2019.  I missed the first show, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), but I managed to attend the second film.

Murder by Contract (1958)
Claude (Vince Edwards) is a ruthless professional killer, but things go awry when he discovers that his next target is a woman.

Written by Ben Simcoe and directed by Irving Lerner, this is a fantastic movie.  It’s tough, brutal, and unrelenting.  Like most low-budget indies, it’s a little rough around the edges, but that doesn’t matter.  In fact, it helps.  It gives the film an energy and quirkiness which holds you better than more refined, and usually blander, fare.  The key word in this film’s title is really “contract”, not “murder”.  This is a film about the business of killing, or, maybe even killing as business.  Claude’s a hit-man because it’s a lucrative career choice.  He wants to buy a house (est. price $28,000), and he’ll never get that on a meager $74/week salary.  So he becomes a contract killer - it’s a rational career choice.  In fact, he’s capitalist rationality pushed to its extreme.  When he realizes that his target in LA is a woman (Caprice Toriel), he’s upset.  Woman are unpredictable, they’re “descended from monkeys”, as he puts it.  So his first thought, like a good businessman, is to double his fee from $5,000 to $10,000.  No doubt if his target was a child, he could raise it to $15,000 or $20,000.  Children are even more unpredictable (and they’re descended from monkeys, too). 

Herschel Bernardi, Vince Edwards, and Phillip Pine

Vince Edwards does a marvelous job in the lead.  He brings to Claude that one indispensable quality which most psychopaths in real life seem to have (at least to judge by American public life over the last twenty years): boundless self-confidence.  He’s the Mozart of murder, the best in the field.  When he arrives in Los Angeles on the job (this is before he knows his target’s gender), he lounges around for a couple of days - goes golfing, takes in the sights - just waiting for the right inspired moment to kill his target.  This drives his handlers in LA - Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Herschel Bernardi) - crazy.  “He’s fresh-fried out of the nut factory!” is how Marc describes Claude.  Still, both men are cowed by his confidence and menace.  Both of these qualities will collapse by the end of the film, and if in the end his professionalism fails, like a true film noir hero, Claude will go out memorably.

Eddie Muller, our Noir City 2019 host, mentioned in his introduction to Murder by Contract that this is one of the favorite films of Martin Scorsese.  Scorsese even borrowed from it - or rather paid homage to it - in Taxi Driver (1976).  One can understand the attraction.  The insight which drives the greatness of post-Vietnam American gangster films (many of them directed by Martin Scorsese) is the similarity they draw between crime and business.  From The Godfather (1971) to Breaking Bad (2008-2013) our criminal heroes are fundamentally businessmen.  If the lines between legitimate and illegitimate aren’t entirely blurred, they are certainly called into question by Jake Gittes, Henry Hill, Tony Soprano, and Stringer Bell.  And they are questioned in Murder by Contract, too.  At one point Claude asks Marc and George why he, who kills one person, is a criminal while someone who kills thousands with an atom bomb is a hero.  A satisfactory answer is not forthcoming. 

All in a day's work - Vince Edwards

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