Combustible Celluloid
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With: Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel, Michael Granger, Kathie Browne, Joseph Mell, Frances Osborne, Steven Ritch, Janet Brandt, Davis Roberts, Don Garrett, Gloria Victor
Written by: Ben Simcoe
Directed by: Irving Lerner
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 81
Date: 12/01/1958

Murder by Contract (1958)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hire Straits

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This B-film takes a shockingly low-key, detailed approach to the job of contract killer. The hero, Claude (Vince Edwards), is educated and has a regular job but has coldly decided he needs more money to buy a house that he wants. Calculating and emotionless, he decides that he'll make a good killer, and he's right. He's even hired to kill the man who got him started.

The bulk of the movie takes place in Los Angeles, after Claude has proved himself with a few jobs. He's hired to kill a potential witness before a high-profile criminal trial can take place. He waits several days to make sure that his two contacts, Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Herschel Bernardi), are on the level, and then balks when he finds out that his target is a woman, Billie Williams (Caprice Toriel). No, he's not soft. It's just that "women are unpredictable" and it takes extra planning. ("I should have asked for double," he says regarding his pay.)

Claude is so cool and careful -- and so without a conscience -- that it's fascinating watching his plans come unraveled, even as he tries to hang onto his control. The Marc and George characters are an inspired touch as well, reacting with fear and fascination to their new co-worker, and reflecting what the audience is feeling.

Lerner, who directed relatively few films, gives Murder by Contract a harsh, clipped look with everything as deliberate as its hero. When Claude waits for days and days in his apartment for a phone call about his first job, he never once cracks; he exercises and sets up little routines to pass the time. A bizarre guitar score by Perry Botkin helps move things along. This is an amazing film, and one that has developed a deserved cult following over the years.

On a little featurette, Martin Scorsese talks about the film and its influence on his career (he saw it on a double-bill with Anatole Litvak's The Journey).

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