Director: Irving Lerner
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There is certainly no more voracious, vociferous, activist movie lover than the man whose own films are destined to live forever—Martin Scorsese. An avid film collector and active in the preservation movement, Scorsese also has found ways to keep previous generations of films and film artists alive—sometimes literally, by having them work on his films—by borrowing from them. In my review of Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010), I mentioned Scorsese’s use of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s point-of-view shooting from The Red Shoes (1948) in his choice about how to film the fight sequences in Raging Bull (1980).
There is another director who is lodged fondly in Scorsese’s memory, one whose light was dimmed by the blacklist—Irving Lerner. Lerner began his film career directing and shooting documentaries and ended up making Poverty Row pictures. The same year Touch of Evil, the supposed last of the classic noir films, was released, Lerner issued Murder by Contract written by another blacklist victim, Ben Maddow, and shot in seven days primarily on the old Charlie Chaplin Studios lot at La Brea and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Scorsese remembered an early scene in the film in which its star, Vince Edwards, does chin-ups and push-ups in his SRO digs, and had Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) do the same in Taxi Driver (1976). He also hired Lerner to edit New York, New York (1977) and dedicated it to Lerner, who died after finishing work on the film. After seeing Murder by Contract, it’s easy to see how this film could be so memorable and influential to the budding director.
The film begins with Claude (Edwards) carefully grooming and dressing in his room as the opening credits roll. The fastidiousness with which he tends to his appearance suggests a careful man who wants to make a good impression. When he arrives at the home of Mr. Moon (Michael Granger), we’re not at all surprised to learn that he is there for a job. Surprisingly, he tells Moon that he has a steady job that pays him well and gives him a pension and fringe benefits. But he wants to better himself more quickly so that he can marry his girlfriend in Cleveland and buy a house on the Ohio River that would take him more than 20 years to save for otherwise; he wants to be a “contractor.” And he doesn’t mean electrician.
Moon hires hitmen for a mobster named Mr. Vick. He decides to let Claude stew for a couple of weeks after their interview. Famed cinematographer Lucien Ballard shoots Claude in a monotonous routine of dressing, exercising in his room, taking in food trays and tipping the server one of the dimes he has lined up on the table, and waiting for the phone to ring—which it eventually does. Claude is given his first contract, efficiently shown with quick shots of three people tied up in a back room, a sleepy man in a barber’s chair, and Claude emerging from behind a newspaper wearing a white barber’s coat, placing a protective cape around the man’s neck, and grabbing a straight razor from the real barber’s shelf of equipment. Moon pays Claude $500, and at his home, Claude records the sum in a notebook that lists the money he has versus the money he needs to buy the house.
Claude proves to be an effective, reliable hitman, and is given the task of filling a major contract on a government witness in Los Angeles. He is met at the airport by two bumbling handlers, George (Herschel Bernardi) and Marc (Phillip Pine), and frustrates them by playing the tourist for 10 days—not even asking who the target is. When he learns his victim is Billie Williams (Caprice Toriel), the girlfriend of Mr. Vick, the idea of hitting a woman unnerves him to such an extent that failure seems inevitable. The second half of the film details his attempts to take her down and how this “jinx” of a job proves to be his undoing.
Like a number of Poverty Row films, Murder by Contract makes a virtue of its low budget by telling its story in a lean, direct way. Uniquely, it may be the most satirical film noir I’ve ever seen. While humor is found in other noirs, such as The Big Sleep (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Murder by Contract sends up the work/success ethos of the American Dream while at the same time critiquing the hypocrisy by which killing in the line of duty is sanctioned and even honored, while killing by civilians can be grounds for execution.
Claude is a very interesting character. Handsome, healthy, and well-built (Edwards was an Olympic-level swimmer), Claude has never been in trouble with the law, has a college education and a good job, and prides himself on his businesslike attitude to murder, using careful, intelligent planning to ensure success without risk. He never lets emotion get in the way of fulfilling the contract, he tells Marc and George, and shuns firearms. He represents the amorality of businessmen who put windfall profits ahead of common decency while rejecting the vulgarity—and exposure—of naked shows of force. You’ll have to turn around to see that he has slipped a knife into your back.
But like many noir killers, Claude has an undercurrent of crazy—which Marc and George comment upon frequently—particularly psychosexual. He goes ballistic when a waiter (Joseph Mell) brings in his breakfast tray with a lipstick-stained coffee cup. After chewing Harry out for taking no pride in his work and assuring him that he will never get ahead with his slovenly attitude, Claude flips $5 at him as he goes out the door to fetch a fresh cup. Later, when Claude receives a call girl (Kathie Browne) into his room—it’s hard to imagine him having sex with a woman—he admonishes her to wipe the lipstick off her mouth and refuses to kiss her when he ends up hastily ushering her out of his room.
Most of all, he freaks when confronted with the task of killing Billie. He calls women unpredictable, descended directly from monkeys and just as flighty. He could be called misogynistic, but he seems more frightened of women than hateful. In fact, according to the dismissed maid (Frances Osborne) he bribes for information on how to get to Billie in her police-protected home, Billie is highly predictable, spending the mornings watching TV and reading the newspaper and the evenings playing piano. It is Claude who becomes unreliable when his initial, ingenious plan to kill her goes awry through a fluke.
The camera work in this film is brilliant and effective, offering extreme close-ups to heighten our anxiety, as well as to clue us into Claude’s state of mind, particularly when the call girl’s lips loom uncomfortably large. Claude’s early satisfaction with California as he swims in the ocean and walks like a wannabe movie star through the streets with his dark sunglasses barely hiding his attractiveness gives way to a bitter dislike of the place he senses will eat him alive. Similarly, attractive shots of the city transition to dark, arid, tossed-away parts, evident in a scene in the abandoned sets of the Chaplin Studios where Marc, George, and Claude have a final confrontation and one in a drainage culvert through which Claude makes one last attempt to silence Billie. Lerner’s documentary background offers candid laughs, particularly in a gun shop where Claude observes that he can buy a machine gun for $124.95; note the small Nazi flags in the background, a real and remarkably pungent detail.
Most affecting is the simple score of the film. Mainly played on a single guitar by its composer, Perry Botkin Sr., the tune is upbeat and catchy, almost like an advertising jingle. Claude could be thought of as the ultimate organization man for one of the oldest organizations in history, and Botkin’s melody again offers pointed satire on the American idea of success.
Vince Edwards, who must have shared a similar regard for Lerner to Scorsese’s, also remembered him and enlisted him to direct several episodes of Ben Casey, Edwards’ hit TV series of the early 1960s. It’s time Lerner and his unique and superb noir Murder by Contract were better known by more cinephiles.