Murder by Contract
June 11, 2020
1 Hr., 20 Mins.
laude (Vince Edwards), the beautiful-killer antihero of Irving Lerner’s cool Murder by Contract (1958), really wants to buy a house — specifically this nice and palatial one that recently caught his eye on the Ohio River. For a little while now he’s been looking at the property as a sort of fantasy. It’s another thing he wants but knows he’ll never be able to have for himself (at least in the near-term) on account of
his salary. But then the other day something dawned on him. Why keep waiting when you know what you want? Claude’s ambitions do not come with any moral considerations; long ago, he says, he “eliminated personal feelings.” So he seeks out contract-killing — an equal parts risky and lucrative business he reasons poses more rewards than it does risks. When he worms his way into the criminal milieu at the beginning of the movie (he's narrowed down a contact), he does so with such unflinching certainty in himself that depending on your purview he comes across like a cocky young professional who just graduated or an experienced pro who's moved past self-consciousness.
“It’s business,” Claude rationalizes. “The same as any other business — you murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, it’s throat-cutting. Same thing.” Capitalism is brutal. To him, as long as someone professes a need for his help, this job is no different than something as innocuous as cashiering. Claude is immediately, and freakishly, effective at his new job — getting gigs every few days at $500 a pop. In the interim he locks himself up in his sparsely decorated apartment, where all he does to pass the time, really, is cyclically exercise throughout the day with homemade equipment. There’s little sense that Claude has much of an inner life. It’s suggested, too, that he doesn’t actually hunger for the materials he claims he wants but is more so fixated on the upped status certain procurements can bring.
Claude does have particular standards. He will not carry a gun with him (victims are most often dealt with with sharp objects and wires), and he will not kill a woman. This isn’t because he thinks they’re feebler or because he respects them (“I don’t like women,” he flatly declares) but because he finds them too emotionally complicated to ensure a job well done — too dangerously unpredictable. “The human female is descended from the monkey, and monkeys are about the most curious animal in the world,” Claude says, his face stony. “If anything goes on, it just can't stand it not to know about it. Same thing with a woman.”
A dilemma: partway through Murder by Contract, Claude is offered his most gainful gig yet. He’s to head to Los Angeles (he’s on the East Coast), accompanied by a couple of carriers he intimidates, and find a way to kill Billie Williams, an ultra-valuable witness in an upcoming, extremely high-profile trial. The trial is so high-profile and potentially dangerous that Williams' place is
currently being guarded militantly by police. Claude agrees to this contract, which will get him a whopping $10,000, without knowing much about Billie, whom he assumes is a man. In actuality Billie (Caprice Toriel) is a woman — a pragmatic former nightclub pianist who is acting as a witness to save herself from charges.
Murder by Contract is a lean, no-nonsense movie — opinions drilled in by the simplicity of its narrative and storyline and the creeping, thrumming of Perry Botkin’s earworm of a guitar score. The complication of Billie’s identity presents itself as the film’s possible breaking point. It’s potential energy desperate for a release. For the movie thus far, Claude has been scarily hyper-focused — a personification of a bone-cutting laser. Whether Billie will usurp this provides much tension — a reality complemented by Lucien Ballard’s camerawork, which increasingly makes use of artfully claustrophobic closeups, and the progressively frantic editing. It’s like an explosion when Billie and Claude finally meet face to face. Would it feel so explosive if Lerner didn’t ingeniously have Billie playing the piano as Botkin’s nondiegetic music crashes into it?
The movie has been made with a stylistic inventiveness that at the time was probably superfluous. (It was made extremely cheaply in about a week.) But now the once taken-for-granted inventiveness has helped turn it into something of a totem, even if the movies from which it took cues arguably have bested it. It’s considered a blueprint for future, just-as-sleek neo-noirs like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, from 1967. And it made a big impression on a young Martin Scorsese, who eventually molded the mannerisms of characters like Taxi Driver's (1976) Travis Bickle after Claude. He has also claimed that the movie, in its design, is among the most inspiring to him.
There is no heaviness felt while watching Murder by Contract that makes you think it’s going to stick with you. Like the character it circles around, it’s so economic in its approach that it seems above all else to be trying to get a job done, to entertain and then be discarded of. But days later it remains etched in my brain in a way that suggests it might soon claim a permanent spot, not just for its ahead-of-its-time artistic coolness but also for the eeriness of its tacit capitalist critiques. No matter how much you think you’re bending the oppressive system, the bending — like cutting a head off a hydra — doesn't altogether stop the perpetuation of the system's oppressiveness. Claude procures what he believes he should want and then have, and then what? A