Get out your rifles and golf balls, we're reviewing Murder by Contract!
This is part of the same noir collection I started Noir Week with last year (whatever happened to that?) and I'm happy to say that this particular one is a noir classic! It's minimalist in its approach and has a simple story. It's a film that's mostly about waiting, but somehow manages to be tension-filled.
It's a simple story: a contract killer tries to complete his hit. This is actually what I wanted The Killers to be. It's really just Claude going around being a sociopath, killing people, explaining why he's a sociopath, and waiting to kill people. But why he does what he does and how he does it are interesting. He doesn't like guns; he never carries a weapon, and he waits for the right moment. He went to church and pays taxes like a normal person, by the way. A lot of this is thanks to Vince Edwards’ marvelous acting, taking his time to look like an emotionless killer. He always seems calculating, waiting for the right moment.
There's also a lot of fun quipping between the two hired goons, Marc and George (Philip Pine and Herschel Bernardi, respectively). They don't get how Claude works, and all the waiting and not knowing how he's going to pull off the hit eats them up inside. These roles could have been bland and hard to tell apart, but with Pine's uppity mile-a-minute worrying and Bernardi's laid-back wise cracks, they come off not only as different from each other, but endearing and funny.
The shots, pacing and cinematography are subtle and artful. It's a really beautiful film, considering how it's shot. There's one scene near the beginning in which Calude talks to his boss, Mr. Moon. Mr Moon moves around, gets a cigar, and sits down, but his face is never in the shot. The camera never moves, it's always focused on Claude because he's the main event. It's a fantastic experimental shot. There's violence, sort of, but because of artistic reasons, or maybe budget reasons (fake blood is expensive you know!) we never really see any of it. It's the "cutting to the fire place" of killing someone. It's really interesting! But if you're watching this just for some cool, old-school violence, go elsewhere. They prefer to use the sound of explosions, not the actual explosions.
A big part of why this movie works is the minimalist score, which is a simple acoustic guitar that really only has two main themes. It's light and almost laid back, but works with the shots and Calude's actions; everything seems all the more sinister. It feels calculating and gets under you skin. Everything in this movie is minimalistic, and that's why I love it. The score is barely one guitar solo, there are only a handful of main characters, and the plot is simple. They do so much with so little.
I find the ending problematic. A lot of great film noirs have a great set-up, but don't quite pull off the landing, and that's what seems true in this case. I'm not going to spoil anything, but it's an ambiguous ending that will make you scratch your head and ask, “Why?” The ending: it's interesting, it's artsy. But it doesn't quite have the “oomph” a better explanation would have carried. Still, it's not so bad that it ruins the entire ride.
Murder by Contract is a fun and wonderfully shot film. If you are as in love with film noir as I am, or just want to check out a pretty great minimalistic classic, you'll want to catch this one where you can!
THE GOOD: Great acting, fun dialogue, good pacing, beautiful shots, great score, great noir.
THE BAD: Ambiguous ending, might not be enough violence for some, not a great view on women
THE VERDICT: $$$$ This is a great example of film noir and a simple little dirty movie. Check it out!
MOVIES LIKE IT: Detour, The Killers, Scarlet Street, M The Line-Up
ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: Claude needs to take out someone in a barber shop. He tied up the staff in the back of the shop and waits for his target to sit in a chair. He closes the blinds and starts the simple act of cleaning his razor blade. That's it. That’s the end of the scene. It's really simple, but that's all we need, and that's all the movie cares to show. Like Claude; he looks simple, like a simple law-abiding citizen, but underneath there's a technical mastery of his craft that will take any unsuspecting victim by surprise.