Murder by Contract is a 1958 American film noir crime film directed by Irving Lerner. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Ben Maddow did uncredited work on the film. Centering on an existentialist hit man assigned to kill a woman, the film is often praised for its spare style and peculiar sense of cool.
Though not widely seen at the time of its release, it finally appeared on DVD, included in the boxed set, "Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (The Big Heat / 5 Against the House / The Lineup / Murder by Contract / The Sniper)," released November 3, 2009. The film has exerted an influence on American cinema, most notably on director Martin Scorsese, who famously cited Murder by Contract as "the film that has influenced [him] most."
Vince Edwards plays Claude, a disaffected man who, in search of money, decides to become a contract killer. After successfully killing targets in a barber shop and a hospital, as well as his own boss, Claude is given a contract to kill the witness in a high-profile trial in Los Angeles. At first calm about the assignment, Claude becomes more nervous when he discovers the witness in question is a woman (Caprice Toriel). Claude scrambles to find a way to kill the woman, who never leaves her closely guarded house. After several complicated attempts (which involve high voltage and flaming arrows), Claude is convinced he has killed her, but discovers that the police have faked her death. Convinced he will be unable to fulfill the contract, Claude quits, only to find the two men who have been assisting him have now been instructed to kill him. After killing the men, Claude finally succeeds in sneaking into the witness's house, but hesitates when he's about to strangle her. The relief police arrive; Claude attempts to escape but is killed during a shoot-out.
The film's main character, Claude, is set apart from the other hit men in the story by his unwillingness to carry a gun (most of his victims are dispatched in unusual ways) and his casual approach to murder, which he treats as a business. He spends the first several days of his visit to Los Angeles sight-seeing instead of planning the assassination. Claude's casualness comes from the fact that he views men as largely predictable, and for that reason is unwilling to kill a woman (women, in his opinion, are more complicated).
Murder by Contract was directed by Irving Lerner from an original screenplay by Ben Simcoe. At some point, Ben Maddow, who had been nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Asphalt Jungle, did uncredited work on the script (Maddow also worked uncredited on several other notable films of the era, including Johnny Guitar and The Wild One). The film was shot in seven days in February 1958 in Los Angeles. Produced by Orbit Productions, it was distributed theatrically in December 1958 by Columbia Pictures. Columbia still holds the copyright on the film, dated October 1, 1958.
Part of the film's reputation lies in its influence on director Martin Scorsese, who cites it as the one that has influenced his approach to filmmaking the most. Scorsese praises its "economy of style" and compares its ability to communicate ideas through cinematic "shorthand" to the work of Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson.
Reviewing it for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum praises the film as "singular and nearly perfect", noting its "lean, purposeful style" and "witty feeling for character, dialogue, and narrative ellipsis." In overview of a 2006 Film Forum series on film noir for Slant Magazine, Fernando F. Croce writes that "[Irving] Lerner's camera records [Vince] Edwards's moral emptiness with a sharpshooter's calm." The Time Out Film Guide describes Murder by Contract as a "terrific, no-nonsense B movie", praising it as "well ahead of its time" and adding that "Lerner and his superb cameraman, Lucien Ballard, make the most of a shoestring budget to produce a taut, spare, amoral film; it doesn't look restricted, it looks restrained."
Variety's original 1958 review singles out Perry Botkin's music for the film for praise, noting that the all-guitar score gives "fine atmospheric backing."