Murder By Contract

This probably sounds dumb, but this film feels like a favourite film of Martin Scorsese. It is one, by the way, he’s spoken lovingly of it countless times. Seeing it for the first time when he was 14 or so, he’s cited its influence in the making of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and even as recently as The Departed. While not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract is a peculiar film to say the least.

From the opening minutes, the spare electric guitar score by Perry Botkin Sr, reminiscent of the same Mediterranean music that would later be found in films like The Godfather, sets up a tone altogether different from what one might expect from a film like this. It leaves the film feeling more playful than the grim serious tone of the typical gangster picture. In the same way that a satire might aim to use comedy as a roundabout way of discussing and criticising a contentious topic, Murder by Contract uses its stylistic levity in order to create real tangible dread. It’s creepy, something about it just makes your skin crawl.

This film, for all it’s shortcomings, is drunk with character. Inspired, no doubt, by the European filmmakers whose influence was only just beginning to be felt in Hollywood, Murder by Contract is full of small stylistic flourishes and cinematic steps-to-the-left. Similar to the works of Nicholas Ray, or Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks, you can look at this film as a mid-point, fitting perfectly between the decaying Classical Hollywood and what was soon to come.

Of all the deviations from the norm this film makes, none is more important, I’d argue, than how it chooses to start it’s story. Instead of seeing a street-wise, cold-eyed killer picking up another job, we see a guy begging to be given a chance from a potential employer who doesn’t take him seriously one bit. Films about contract killers, or master thieves, or, really, any kind of criminal who’s any good at his job, almost always work the exact opposite way to how, say, Superhero films do. They are completely devoid of origin story and the characters rarely go on to experience any kind of real change through the course of the film. They’re treated like constants, immovable objects, treated as if they were the way they are since the womb. There are exceptions of course, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket comes to mind, but nonetheless, by doing this Murder by Contract sets itself up to be something very different.

The film isn’t without it’s flaws, but its because of these cracks that I feel like this film is so worth a watch. Like I spoke about in my review of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Murder by Contract lets loose with as many stylistic flourishes as it thinks it can get away with. It’s not afraid to fail and that’s not something you can say about many films. The films of Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, they’re all full of these scenes which if taken just one step in any other direction would fall flat on their faces, but yet they don’t let that deter them. Murder by Contract falls on its face plenty of times, but the risk of that never deters it. It tries a lot and lands some, and that’s to its credit.

This is the first film I’ve watched with the intention to write about it before I’d seen it, but I’m glad I did. While I can’t call it a favourite, it’s definitely worth a watch. While the late 60’s and the rise of the New Hollywood get all the credit, with films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, you can really see the seeds of revolution here. In the five year period around 1958, you can see several films like Murder by Contract, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks, and more that, while they might not have reached the audience required for critical mass, do give us more than a fair warning of what was to come.

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.