Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958)

Scorsese included this in this article/list he compiled of his favorite gangster/crime movies, saying that it was one of his primary influences for “Taxi Driver,” and from the opening minutes, that’s more than obvious. The protagonist, Claude, spends all day every day in his room, working out, pacing about, and every other solitary motion, much like Travis Bickle years later. In this case, Claude is waiting for a call from a prospective employer, that particular employ being assassin. No explanation is really given as to why Claude wants to kill people professionally, as we first see him requesting an unannounced audience with his potential, surprised employer, claiming this is just a new career direction he’d like to take and nothing more. I liked that about Claude. He’s introduced as a nice little blank slate, a loner with a tunnel-vision for self-betterment, whose only real difference from Travis Bickle is that he actually has a career ambition. As the film progresses, there’s less of a downright fetishistic focus on the protagonist’s daily, isolated routine than in the likes of “Taxi Driver” or Melville’s “Le Samourai”, making much more use of dialogue than those two films, or rather, monologue. Claude sure likes to talk a lot, and in that talk, he sure does like to project how highly he sees himself as a killer and as god’s gift to the human race, much to the chagrin of his two exasperated handlers / colleagues overseeing the particular job that takes up the bulk of the film. Moments like this drag the film’s pacing some – more often than not I just wanted to see Claude put his money where his mouth is – and overall there’s a weirdly comic tone to the whole proceedings, from the lively music to Claude’s two bumbling companions to Claude’s unexpected and darkly humorous failures in accomplishing this job, that’s sometimes compellingly satirical and sometimes just plain strange and off-putting and inappropriate. Nevertheless, Claude’s an interesting character to observe, even if we’re not directly observing the moment he’s getting paid for, as director Irving Lerner wisely – and innovatively – hints here and there at the fate of Claude’s victims, so that the killings themselves are either just off-screen or right after a scene cuts. It’s all about the preparation and the motions and the lonely lifestyle itself – an emphasis that in my opinion is put to better use in films like the aforementioned “Le Samourai”, for instance, but nevertheless raises “Murder for Contract” slightly higher than the B-exploitation film it could have been. Instead, I won’t say that it’s a character study since Claude remains so distant and mysterious – playful and mischievous one minute, terrifyingly serious the next – despite showing off his gift of gab, but rather a study of a day or two in a life. He says he objects to killing a woman because they’re too unpredictable, and thus demands double pay…is he really that callous and resentful of women, or is he trying to hide some kind of moralistic chivalry from his two partners to try to project the laid-back tough guy persona he seems to hold so dear? We’ll probably never know, he’s that attentive to concentrating on the job and his craft alone and emotionally divorcing himself from his victims for the sake of business, despite leading his partners on a days-long goose chase of fun ‘n sun throughout the city (for a very important reason, as we eventually discover), so maybe he did put his money where his mouth was after all.

7.5/10

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