' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Murder by Contract (1958)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Murder by Contract (1958)

Do not underestimate the importance of the title. "Murder by Contract." It's not "Murder, My Sweet" nor "A Perfect Murder" nor "Murder at Dawn" nor "Murder By Invitation" nor "Murder on the Orient Express." No, it's a murder by contract. This specifically implies a business transaction, a murderer as an entrepreneur. Indeed, Claude (Vince Edwards), comes across less a killer than a pragmatical financier who has unlocked the ultimate get-rich quick scheme.


As Irving Lerner's film opens, Claude is getting dressed up in best suit, as if on his way to a job interview. Which he is, it's merely that he is interviewing for a job rubbing people out rather than assisting transactions at the corner bank. He has a good job already, and an itsy bitsy amount of money, but he wants a specific house on the banks of Ohio River. Whether it's taking out a mortgage you can't afford in 2008 or knifing some poor stranger in 1958, it always comes back to real estate here in America.

Strangely, we come to sort of respect Claude, even as we find ourselves more and more appalled. He has principles, as it seems so many cinematic killers do. For instance, he refrains from using guns to take lives since, after all, guns are illegal. Never mind that murdering people is illegal, too. A dedicated professional like Claude does not view what he's doing as murder so much as a fulfilling of his contract. He was hired to provide a service. He provides it, he simply will not provide it (regardless of its legality) via illegal means.

Nor does he find any nobility in killing women. This is not on account of being improper for a dude to kill a dame nor is it because he believes men are superior to women. If anything, Claude seems of the opinion women are smarter then men. He labels them unpredictable, but this is meant as a compliment. A man will stroll into a barber shop and sit right down in the barber's chair all willy-nilly, not stopping to consider the face hidden behind the newspaper by not be the barber at all but someone there to whack him. A woman, however, is more likely to ascertain and prevent duplicitousness.

So, when Claude learns from his mafia contacts Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Herschel Bernardi) that his latest contract involves famed nightclub singer Billie Williams (Caprice Toriel), he throws a hissy fit and asks for more money. He gets it. Except what he also gets is trouble, more trouble than he bargained for, as the film's shaggy dog guitar score supremely highlights the way that Claude's plight morphs into a mirror of Michael Palin's plight in "A Fish Called Wanda." Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and it goes wrong with a purposely perfect synchronicity.


It's weird to say, I realize, but "Murder by Contract" really does because blackly humorous, both in the way Claude is as interested in being a sightseer upon arriving in L.A. to do the job as, you know, actually doing the job, and in the way the job becomes a series of setbacks.

Here's a guy who's got it all figured. He scribbles his earnings on a notepad, tracking them to the day when he can buy that dream home. People, he hollers at an unsuspecting waiter, are too lazy to make something of themselves, too content to sit around and wait for good things to fall into their lap rather than going out and seizing those good things for themselves. Life isn't about random chance, about hoping for the best, it's about smart and through planning and, in turn, creating the best of your own accord. In the words of Caledon Hockley: "A real man makes his own luck." Thus, when Claude begins moaning how it's "a jinx" that's gone and done him in, it's laugh-out-loud funny.

The overarching theme of noir is, of course, fatalism, and here we have a noir protagonist who thinks his attention to detail makes him impervious to that theme. But oh, my dear Claude, no one out-plans his fate.

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