Daily Archives: November 23, 2016

Murder by Contract (1958)


*. How much of a cue is the score giving us? The lights come up on a typical noir setting: the hood wearing a wifebeater shaving in front of a mirror in his dour apartment. But Perry Botkin’s plucking of those electric guitar strings recalls the jaunty zither music from The Third Man. Is this a noir comedy?
*. I think it’s very funny, but I can’t be sure how intentional this was. Could it have been meant as a satire?
*. Take the character of Claude, the philosopher-psychopath hit man. He’s always ready with a lecture on what it takes to be a perfect killing machine, and these are delivered with such intensity that it helps to mask his near total incompetence. But at least he has George fooled. And boy is he cool. Look at the quiet scene where he kills the man at the barbershop, the way his own nodding head echoes that of his victim. It’s like they’re both ready to fall asleep.
*. His lectures, in turn, are sheer nonsense. They impress the hell out of George, but then George admits to only having made it to the third grade. Most of what Claude says just boils down to killing being a business. He browbeats both the waiter and the call girl over the need to focus more on the bottom line. And in case we could possibly miss the point, the script keeps hammering us. Contract work is business: “You murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, throat cutting.” We start to feel as though Claude is just a little too full of himself, even bragging about his supposed lack of empathy: “I wasn’t born this way. I trained myself. I eliminate personal feeling.”
*. But Claude’s best speeches are the ones where he tries to explain why women always make a mess of things. They are unpredictable. You can’t plan for them. Then, contradicting this, both of his first two plans to kill Billie rely on her behaving in entirely predictable ways. The second one, for example, is based on the scientific premise that “The human female is descended from the monkey, and monkeys are about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on, it just can’t stand it not to know about it. Same thing with a woman.” Nobody could have written that with a straight face, even in 1958.
*. Shot in just eight days by Irving Lerner, it’s a movie most often praised for its “economy of style” (Martin Scorsese) and “lean, purposeful” approach (Jonathan Rosenbaum). I guess this is fair enough, bu the stylistic sparseness makes an odd, comic juxtaposition with the wild absurdity of Claude’s Wile E. Coyote murder schemes.
*. In the first of these, Claude somehow fixes the power lines going into Billie’s house so that when she turns on her television it will explode. No, really. That’s his genius plan. The guy, George declares, has a brain like Einstein’s! Alas, when Billie switches her TV on with a remote, her life is spared. Drat! Foiled again! Back to the old drawing board . . .
*. His next brilliant plan involves all three hoods working together to trick Billie into coming to her front door. How can they possibly do that? Hm. Well, spend the day training George how to shoot with a bow so that he can fire a flaming arrow into some dry grass near Billie’s house. Then have Marc call up the fire department. You see, when Billie hears the sirens of the fire engines, she will (being a woman descended from the monkey and thus about the most curious animal in the world) open the door and then KABLAMMO! Contract fulfilled! What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that? It’s genius, I tells ya.
*. Unfortunately Billie is not the one who opens the door so somebody else (another curious woman, naturally) ends up getting shot. Grrrrr! If only Claude had actually got that artillery piece that he told George about!
*. Marc and George must be meant as comic relief: bickering villainous lightweights providing a foil for Claude. There’s no way the shot of the three of them lined up together in the convertible taking in the sights of L.A. wasn’t meant to be funny, is there? The score here helps too. I’ve heard it compared to the theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies, which Botkin also composed.
*. Billie Williams is funny too. She reciprocates Claude’s sexism, hating all men because she thinks they’re “sex crazy” (something she tells us apropos of nothing). She also wears a leopard-print dress and carries a teddy bear around when she isn’t watching TV or playing the piano.
*. Finally, the plot is filled with inconsistencies and absurdities. A call girl is introduced who just happens to be in possession of secret inside information from the D.A.’s office that she relays unwittingly to Claude. That’s her whole reason for being in the movie. Marc and George take Claude to a film set to whack him, and George doesn’t even bring a gun. And why does the Chief even give these two idiots the job in the first place, when it’s already been established that neither of them have killed a man before? Finally, after refusing to save his life by fulfilling the contract on Billie, Claude kills Marc and George and then proceeds to try, once again, to kill Billie. Why? I mean, seeing as she’d already testified, why even bother? Was the Chief really going to pay him?
*. I hope all of this lets you know how enjoyable a movie Murder by Contract is. It’s easily one of the silliest, most singular, and bizarre noirs ever made. Was that what they wanted? I think not. But there’s nothing wrong with happy accidents.