Murder by Contract (1958)

“The only type of killing that’s safe is when a stranger kills a stranger — no motive, nothing to link the victim to the execution.”

Synopsis:
A ruthless contract killer (Vince Edwards) finds his resolve shaken when he learns his next victim (Caprice Toriel) is a woman.

Genres:

Review:
This little-seen B-thriller — reportedly one of Martin Scorsese’s personal favorites — tells the simple yet remarkably effective tale of an uber-rational hit man who becomes completely unhinged by the thought of killing a woman. Director Irving Lerner keeps the story moving at an economical clip, introducing us immediately to our determined protagonist, providing several vignettes of his calculated killing style, then transplanting us to Los Angeles, where comic relief suddenly appears in the form of the two atypical thugs (Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi) tasked with ensuring that Edwards carries out his job in a timely fashion. From this point on, we’re no longer sure what to expect, and are kept in genuine suspense throughout the remainder of the film. Although we never learn exactly why Edwards is so freaked out by the thought of killing a woman (he limits his explanation to a mere, “They’re unpredictable”), Murder by Contract remains ripe for a more probing analysis of gender relations. Lucien Ballard’s cinema verite camera work and Perry Botkin’s memorable, guitar-heavy score add to the overall enjoyment of this compact little thriller, which is well worth seeking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vince Edwards as Claude
    Murder Contract Edwards
  • Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi as the “comic relief” duo tasked with ensuring that Claude completes his duties in Los Angeles
    Murder Contract Duo
  • Many effectively shot and edited sequences
    Murder Contract Barber
  • Lucien Ballard’s cinematography
    Murder Contract Cinematography
  • Perry Botkin’s guitar-drenched soundtrack

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around good show which deserves wider release.

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One Response to “Murder by Contract (1958)”

  1. Yes, a must – this is indeed one nifty flick!

    It’s easy to simply think of the soon-to-be heartthrob (as Ben Casey) as nothing more than the stud muffin of some movies he made just before this: ‘Serenade’, ‘The Killing’. Easy – and who wouldn’t want to think of him just…that…way?

    But what’s surprising is how good Edwards is in this pic. Complex as all get-out, and it’s true – and it’s probably a good thing – that his pathology re: women is left ambiguous. It’s intriguing how he goes on about them:

    “It’s not a matter of sex, it’s a matter of money. If I’d-a known it was a woman, I’d’ve asked double. I don’t like women. They don’t stand still. When they move, it’s hard to figure out why or wherefore. They’re not dependable. It’s tough to kill somebody who’s not dependable.”

    Edwards’ scene with the secretary/call girl is a highlight. His character’s distaste for women is so apparent here that one can only anticipate something along the lines of Robert Mitchum’s behavior in ‘Cape Fear’. Except that Edwards is slightly friendlier. (Indeed, his often-polite manner with his clients is also creepy.)

    The film score is a real plus – actually somewhat against the grain of the film, but it works marvelously.

    All told, nicely done.

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