Every once and awhile when you dig through the treasure trove of cinema which includes the B film you can wade through the refuse and come upon something truly special — elevating itself from all the lesser offerings of the past decades. Murder by Contract is such a film.
It’s not simply about the sheer economy because that’s what these lower billed films were supposed to be. Having a shooting schedule of a mere 7 days was hardly out of the ordinary. But it’s what all those involved from director Irving Lerner to cinematographer Lucien Ballard to lead Vince Edward were able to accomplish in that amount of time. This is an undeniable cult classic coming on the tail-end of what we know as film-noir and it’s easy to notice there’s something strikingly different about this film. It more ways than one it feels real, authentic, and true. Out of necessity, it chooses simplicity over the normal Hollywood production values and there’s an honesty in that.
Martin Scorsese even acknowledged the impact this film had on him at an early age and it’s true you can see bits of influence even in Taxi Driver as Travis bulks up and prepares for his future endeavors. You can see his fitness regiment mirrored in Claude our main person of interest. In the same montage, the director adeptly suggests the passage of time while developing our protagonist through his silent actions.
Certainly at face value, this is a very simple hit man film and there have been many ultra cool gunmen then and now. But there’s still something striking about the one we meet here. When we meet him he’s not a hit man at all but he’s driven to become one. He wants a contract, he gets it, and he carries it out. He does what he needs to do and he’s smart about it.
Vince Edwards does emit a certain calm and collected coolness but he’s also surprisingly existential for a film of this seemingly inconsequential nature. Alain Delon’s Jeff Costello is enjoyable for the very fact that he doesn’t talk. This man is interesting because he does — with choice words for waiters and about women among other topics. You get the sense that he’s a Superman as Dostoevsky wrote about and his handlers joke as much but that’s simply how he lives (Look, boy, you and me, we don’t pretend to be supermen. Me, I don’t even claim to be Mighty Mouse). Always smart, always proud and purposeful.
Given its initial humble locales, it’s easy to assume that the story is going to continue in this same vein for its entirety. But when Claude gets hired for a high-profile hit in Los Angeles his scenery also gets an upgrade to sunny Southern California. His timeline is two weeks but he’s content to soak in the sun, take his time, and think. He’s cool as always. The two men — his constant companions — who are to see that he completes the job are almost comically impatient. They don’t seem made for the crime business but here they are waiting at golf ranges and sitting in movie theaters to please their out of town guest before he goes to work earning his paycheck.
Another compliment to Murder by Contract is that it feels extraordinarily methodical and that’s a perfect reflection of Claude. He does get to his work in due time and he faces challenges, meeting them with the necessary reactions. Still, that doesn’t mean the hit is a piece of cake and because he waited so long even a pro like Claude begins to feel at least a little pressure. His two contacts are equally tense if not more so. Things begin to get testy between them as the deadline looms large.
This has to be the most idiosyncratic and interesting score I’ve heard since The Third Man. The strings of the electric guitar are used to haunt our consciousness as we nervously watch events unfold. Because that’s a lot of what being a hit man entails. Waiting around, biding your time. It requires nerves of steel. And Claude is business as usual to the end. But his business is a hard one.