Monday, February 01, 2010

Underrated Movie #28: Murder By Contract

Noir week, day two!

Title: Murder by Contract
Year: 1958
Director: Irving Lerner
Writer: Ben Simcoe
Stars: Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Caprice Toriel, Cathy Browne

The Story: A mysterious man, with no criminal history, decides to begin a career as a hitman. He quickly impresses his new bosses with his efficiency and professionalism, but then he starts having problems on an out-of-town job. His handlers aren’t sure if he’s losing it or if there’s a method to his madness...

How it Came to be Underrated: For reasons that are unclear, this movie was never available on vhs or dvd until last week. Also, I’ve heard rumors that Lerner, like yesterday’s director, was blacklisted, but the dates don’t really line up, since he got most of his work at the height of the trouble.

Why It’s Great:

  1. We’re at the tail end of the original noir era and we’re a world away from Tension. Shot in cool-eyed widescreen with a laconic electric guitar score, there are no crimes of passion here. Crime, like noir, has become a well-oiled machine. Edwards calmly explains his decision to become a hitman: “I want to buy a nice house. With my salary it would take about 23 years. I can’t wait.”
  2. The movie is powered by the chilling magnetism of Edwards, whose icy cool exterior hides a volatile core. Edwards went to work as TV’s Ben Casey right after this and today he’s just remembered as a pretty face, which is shocking given how good he is here. Still, he hardly would have fit in with the Brando-esque neuroticism that ruled the day. Like his character, Edwards is more interesting in doing than be-ing.
  3. I was already amazed by the film’s frank dissection of the crime business, but two thirds of the way in, I got to a scene that made my jaw hit the floor. For his evening's entertainment, Edwards calls a number he’s been given. A “Mad Men” type secretary answers the phone at her office job. When she realizes that this call is about her other job, she calmly switches the phone to her other ear and continues the conversation with a cool assurance.

    There are no “criminals” here, just people making a living without the luxury of conventional morality.
  4. A lot of ‘50s movies wore their Freud on their sleeves. If a movie dared to draw the connection between sex and crime, then you could count on a bow-tied expert to show up and pontificate on what it all means. Not here. The roots of Edwards’ psychological problems are implied, but never spelled out.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Martin Scorsese has been singing the praises of this movie for years and just before Lerner died Scorsese hired him to help edit New York, New York, which I happen to feel is Scorsese’s most underrated movie.

How Available Is It?: I’m happy to report that the new dvd is gorgeous. There’s even a brief introduction by Scorsese where he talks about how much this influenced him.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Perhaps The War Embittered Tom Like This...


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