Wow. We conclude Indicator’s Columbia Noir #2 boxset with certainly the most surprising, and possibly best, entry in the set. Irving Lerner’s lean, mean and endlessly inventive crime thriller Murder by Contract is astonishingly good. I have to wonder if I’ll see anything quite so enjoyable, exciting and surprising as this film all year.
Vince Edwards stars as hit man Claude, a young, handsome, charming psychopath (well, it IS a noir…) who is as cool as ice in his new ‘job’ of contract killer for some faceless mobster. After a strangely arresting main title sequence in which he dresses for his job interview to become a contract killer, he calmly passes the interview and takes out his first few contracts with supreme ease: this is a young man born for this particularly harrowing career. His success with his early jobs (eventually including his own boss who hired him) gets him awarded a tough witness-removal job over on the West Coast. He is met by two hoods who serve as assistants/watchdogs: the nervous Marc (Phillip Pine) and the laid-back George (Herschel Bernard) who are quite bemused by Claude’s unnaturally calm behaviour, who insists that he is able to spend the first few days swimming in the ocean, fishing and playing golf, as if he’s on holiday. Claude’s calm can’t last however- and he strangely starts to lose his cool when he discovers his target is a woman…
I can’t praise this film enough. I really do enjoy the studio-controlled noir films that dominate these sets but this one is such a breath of fresh air -allegedly shot in just seven days, its extremely low-budget seems to have freed up all sorts of possibilities for director Lerner to get this film made under the radar. In some ways its like Edgar G.Ulmer’s Detour, another rather radical noir entry, or perhaps Kiss Me Deadly, but this one is superior to both- in a league of its own, its a 1958 b-movie noir that seems to prefigure European arthouse cinema films of the 1960s, or even (and more tellingly) Tarantino’s pulp crime thrillers- it feels so cool, so fresh, so modern. The music score -a guitar-based score by Perry Botkin- is hypnotic; variations of one theme that mirrors the zen-like calm of Claude that becomes somewhat dissonant as Claude’s failures to assassinate his last target breaks down his cool. Its absolutely nothing like any noir soundtrack that I have ever heard but fits it perfectly: but then again, in many ways this film is so unlike any other noir I have yet seen and yet it is, unmistakably, utterly noir. The finale is quite sublime.
As soon as the film finished (it runs a paltry 82 minutes) I had to fight the urge to play it again immediately, it was THAT good. I suspect this is one of those films that you can just wallow in, soak in and experience time and again with the same pleasure of watching a damn fine movie. It really is quite marvellous and has leaped into my list of favourite films, its THAT good.