Murder By Contract

The best movie I have seen in the  last three months is not The  King's Speech, not Black Swan or True Grit or 127 Days, but Irving Lerner's taut, hilarious and disturbing Murder by Contract from 1958.  Long unavailable on any format until 2009 and packaged rather inappropriately by Columbia as a Film Noir, Lerner's Termite Opus makes a more pungent and succinct case than The Godfather 14 years later that killing is just another word for good business.

Irving Lerner was probably who Andrew Sarris had in mind when creating the chapter "Oddities, One Shots and Newcomers" for his seminal work of cinephilia The American Cinema.  Indeed, the kind of cinephilic excavation pioneered by Sarris and his troops was bound to stumble on Lerner hiding in the weeds of the American movie factory at some point, but not sure that would have happened without this, his masterpiece amongst some rather undistinguished titles (Studs Lonigan likely the most interesting of the bunch).

In a year when Gigi (not Minnelli's finest by any means) took home the big prize, when Stanley Kramer's stolid, artless Defiant Ones was widely believed to have been robbed of the award, Murder by Contract is, in hindsight, aside from Vertigo and Touch of Evil (neither of which was nominated, of course) the best picture of 1958.  And a preposterous idea like that is what The American Cinema, and the American Cinema, is all about.

The film concerns Claude (played by Vince Edwards with Elvis pompadour,  fresh off seducing Marie Windsor to betray Elisha Cook, Jr. in Kubrick's The Killing), who decides to eighty-six his Squaresville regular job and pursue a position with an unseen Mr. Big as a Hit Man.  True to Lerner's lean and mean storytelling, no back story is given why Claude would find this attractive, no pop-Freudian father-hating or sexual repression flashbacks.  It seems Claude is attracted to idea because it seems more or less a pretty sweet gig.   We know nothing of Claude except he looks and acts cool, and it is this attraction to the banality of this particular kind of evil that makes the audience complicit and, thanks to the whimsical script by Ben Simcoe, delighted in the events.

His handlers (Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine), who trail around with Claude seemingly to assure he doesn't flinch from his duty, seem similarly baffled and attracted to Claude.  They live vicariously through his amoral, emotionally detached walk through the world.  They mockingly refer to Claude throughout as Superman, a nod to both Nietzsche and George Reeves.

Claude is no clod.  He moves deftly from hit to hit, slowly building credibility with Mr. Big, until, of course, he meets his match with a canny Broad (the little-known but quite wonderful Caprice Toriel) doing time in witness protection, a gig which ultimately pushes Claude to the limits of his resourcefulness.

It is to Lerner's credit that as Claude is knocked off his perch it is not for moral reasons.  Killing simply gets harder, as if Claude is on some bizarre Peter's Principal path in his chosen career.   Success in this sort of business is hard-earned.  No hep cat off the turnip truck is going to be Superman without paying his dues.  Claude learns this the hard way, then Lerner fades out, careful not to make the point too emphatically.

Martin Scorsese, a more famous cinephilic excavator than even Sarris, provides a great, short introduction to the DVD.   One can imagine the young Marty, taking in and taking notes on Murder by Contract as the second bill in some Times Square flea bag the year of its release.   Scorsese admits to an homage (or is it theft?) to the sequence where Claude prepares for the call from Mr. Big by working out, a lone, solitary, totally committed figure, in a tiny apartment, to similar sequences in his Taxi Driver, and his far more disturbed protagonist, Travis Bickle.


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