Cast & Crew
In search of a high-paying job, Claude decides to forgo his life as a law-abiding citizen to become a contract killer. Brinks, an underworld boss, refers Claude to Mr. Moon, one of his underlings, to ask for a job. Moon is at first evasive with the inexperienced killer, but later relents, asks for his phone number and decides to test Claude's nerves by making him wait two weeks for a call. After Moon gives him his first assignment, Claude proceeds to a barber shop where, posing as a barber, he slits his victim's throat with a straight razor. For his next job, Claude poses as a doctor, enters the hospital room in which his prey is hooked up to a tube pumping life-sustaining medicine into his body and disconnects the tube. Following Brinks's orders, Claude, now an accomplished assassin, kills Moon and then travels to Los Angeles to eliminate Billie Williams, a witness scheduled to testify against the gangland boss in an upcoming trial. Claude is met at the train station by Brinks's henchmen, Marc and George, who are astounded at the killer's aversion to guns and disinterest in his assignment. Claude, who views murder simply as business, prefers to go sightseeing rather than be apprised of the details of the case. One day, after hitting golf balls at a driving range, Claude insists on attending a movie with Marc and George. After slipping out of the theater and waiting for the others to leave, Claude tails them, and once assured that they are not being followed, asks to be taken to the house in which Billie is being guarded around the clock by the police. Claude is rattled when he discovers that Billie is a woman and demands more money to complete the job because he deems women unpredictable. Posing as an insurance agent, Claude visits Miss Wiley, Billie's former maid, to question her about her employer's daily routine. When Miss Wiley tells Claude that Billie is terrified to leave the house and spends her days playing the piano and watching television, Claude rewires the electrical lines into Billie's house to deliver a high-voltage jolt when she turns on her television set. The next morning, however, Billie uses a remote control to switch on her set, thus avoiding certain death and thwarting Claude's carefully conceived plan. With only three days remaining before the trial, Marc questions Claude's abilities and boasts that he could easily kill Billie himself. When the guards are doubled around the house, Claude abandons his aversion to guns and hatches a scheme to draw Billie to the door where she will be within range of a high-powered rifle. After teaching George to use a bow and arrow, Claude sends him into the hills surrounding Billie's house and instructs him to shoot some flaming arrows at the house, thus starting a fire that will draw out Billie. As Claude waits in the hills with his rifle, a policewoman arrives to guard Billie. When the arrows strike the house, the officer, who was modeling one of Billie's glamorous peignoirs, runs to the door and is shot by Claude. After Claude reads a newspaper account detailing Billie's death, he packs his bags and readies to leave town. Before leaving, he phones an escort service to arrange a companion for dinner. When the escort, Mary, arrives, she nervously chatters on and blurts out the Billie is still alive. After getting Mary drunk, Claude asks her where she got her information and she explains that her mother's uncle, a member of the district attorney's staff, told her. Certain that the contract is jinxed, Claude refuses to finish the job. George and Marc offer to drive him to Union Station to catch his train, but following Brinks's orders, detour to a deserted movie studio where they intend to kill Claude. After feigning illness, Claude catches Marc off guard, grabs his gun and pummels him to death with it. Panicked, George runs away, but Claude catches him and kills him with a lead pipe. Claude then phones Brinks, notifies him that his lackeys are dead and demands $10,000 to silence Billie. Proceeding to the Hall of Records, Claude buys a blueprint of Billie's house and determines that a large drainage pipe runs through the hills and into her basement. That night, Claude wriggles through the pipe and into the house where he knocks the guard unconscious. Telling Billie that he is the new relief man, Claude watches a she sits down at her piano to play a piece of music, then sneaks up in back of her and removes his tie, intending to strangle her with it. He hesitates before he can slip the noose around her neck, however, and she screams, alerting a carload of arriving police officers. When Claude climbs back into the pipe, the officers fire their guns into it, killing him. As Billie picks up the discarded tie, Claude's bloodied hand slips out of the pipe's opening.
Lyle B. Reifsnider
Murder by Contract - Murder By Contract
There's a surliness in Edwards' bottled-up Claude (it later served him well as TV's Ben Casey, which ran from 1961-1966, with Lerner directing 13 of its 153 episodes). But Claude is more about control, and self-control, than anything else, at least at the outset. In a deadpan subverting of the American dream, he declares that he just wants to buy a house on the Ohio River and will be able to pay for it much faster as an assassin, at $500 a pop, than as a wage slave. His intro to a prospective client parodies a corporate job interview. When he's told to go home and wait for the phone to ring, he does so for two weeks, in his monk's cell of a furnished room, passing the time exercising and immersing himself in minutely detailed routine.
When the call comes, he's ready. Claude's meticulousness extends to killing only with legal weapons a knife, his hands, rope, a razor. In every respect save vocationally, he's scrupulously law-abiding. He never speeds, doesn't carry a gun. He's a careful craftsman whose attention to detail is always rendered discreetly we never see the killings, only Claude advancing on his victims as they -- and we -- yield to blackouts, or the sounds of death off screen. Never asking questions, Claude is the model servitor, patiently executing hit after hit, recording $500 payment after $500 payment on a little pad, edging, step by step, toward his retirement cottage, a la Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
But John Huston's noir landmark and Lerner's taut little study couldn't be more different in their underlying assumptions and even cinematic language. The documentary approach that found its way into mainstream American film during and after the war was more pronounced by the late '50s. Besides, Lerner, the New York-born leftist intellectual, came from making anthropological films at NYU. While Huston was making the now-classic combat documentary, The Battle of San Pietro, in 1944, Lerner shot a documentary on the legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini. While The Asphalt Jungle, with its nocturnal world of shadows and rain-slicked streets, was steeped in the noir lexicon, Murder by Contract stood the visual language of noir on its ear by dragging it into the sunlight.
There's a seismic change in tone and focus when the film shifts from the East, where Claude's killings had gone off without a hitch, to Los Angeles. It's a big career opportunity for Claude, whose efficiency with smaller fry -- including the man who originally hired him (Michael Granger's Mr. Moon) -- has led him up the ladder to a $5000 payday for killing a gangster's former girlfriend (Caprice Toriel, whose character blurs gender-role lines by being named Billie). She's about to deliver damaging testimony to a grand jury. Avoiding Union Station, the taciturn is met at the train in Glendale by mob grunts Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine. They're comic relief, Shakespearean clowns, with their baffled grumbling at his inscrutable ways. But his insistence on spending the first few days driving around sightseeing, seemingly at random, isn't just a show of nonchalance and a way to reduce the pressure. He wants to make sure they're not being followed.
When he is sure, he goes into action, faced with assassinating a woman barricaded inside her house in the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by police guards, inside and outside. It's during the setup of the job, and Claude's implementation of his plan, that the film's thematic shocks come clear. The great Lucien Ballard, most famous for shooting Sam Peckinpah's wide-screen epics, started by loading trucks at Paramount and worked his way up to director of cinematography for five years at Columbia when it was a B-studio. He knew how to shoot with economy, and he knew the language of several genres, noir included. What's impressive is that he used so much natural light to make the film's point.
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.
Thus, Billie, his target, although superficially trapped in her own house, is there out of choice. It's her space, however compromised. Strong-willed enough to testify against powerful killers, she's also strong enough to refuse protective custody in a safe jail cell and insist that the guardians of public morality guard her in her own house, where she can play her piano, and flash a temperament the police around her are forced to respect. She is, in short, anything but a sitting duck. Analogue for a new kind of woman who wasn't to fully emerge for another generation, she's nevertheless a prototype. Claude's problem, as his employers grow ever more anxious, is that he literally can't get to her, especially after another woman intervenes.
Glowering, craggy-browed Edwards (Lerner used him again in his follow-up noir, City of Fear, 1959) begins to show signs that his controlled exterior is beginning to crumble. "I don't like women," Claude snarls. "They're not dependable. I don't like killing people who're not dependable." Leaving aside the psycho-sexual dynamic of which Claude seems at best dimly aware, this particular woman is especially unruly. The camera tracks Claude's consternation. L.A.'s relentless, atomizing glare becomes a visual analog to the erosion of the control that the hitherto cool hit man had extended over the spaces where he dealt out death with assurance. As he clambers through the scrubby hills overlooking her house, with Ballard's camera pulling back and tracking him from a distance, we realize that the film is exchanging intimacy for a distanced study of the technician of death as a scrambling animal. We feel desperation in Claude for the first time. Maybe his sniper scope plan won't work. Maybe he'll have to improvise (he's aware that not successfully making the kill is his own death warrant), literally and figuratively penetrating the house, penetrating his quarry's space. And if he does, who'll end up as the victim?
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.
Producer: Leon Chooluck
Director: Irving Lerner
Screenplay: Ben Maddow, Ben Simcoe
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editing: Carlo Lodato
Art Direction: Jack Poplin
Music: Perry Botkin, Jr.
Cast: Vince Edwards (Claude), Phillip Pine (Marc), Herschel Bernardi (George), Caprice Toriel (Billie Williams), Michael Granger (Mr. Moon), Kathie Browne (Secretary/Party Girl).
BW-81m Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay Carr
Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by Ian Christie and David Thompson
A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thompson
Citizen Bickle, or the Allusive Taxi Driver: Uses of Intertextuality, John Thurman
Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg
Interview with Martin Scorsese, by Stephen Holden, New York Times, May 21, 1993
Murder by Contract - Murder By Contract
The following Los Angeles area locations are featured in the film: Ventura Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley, the Hollywood Freeway and the downtown interchange, the Thelma Todd House on Pacific Coast Highway, the Glendale train station, the Hall of Records at the Los Angeles Civic Center and the driving range in Studio City. In an interview quoted in a modern source, director Martin Scorsese said about Murder By Contract: "This is the film that has influenced me the most. I had a clip of it in Mean Streets but had to take it out because it was too long." Scorsese goes on to say that the sequence in Taxi Driver in which "Travis Bickel" gets into shape was inspired by Murder by Contract.
Released in United States 1999
Released in United States December 1958
Released in United States Winter December 10, 1958
Released in United States 1999 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Columbia 75" November 19 - January 13, 1999.)
Released in United States December 1958
Released in United States Winter December 10, 1958