Saturday, 16 April 2016

Scorsese's picks: Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958)

I first heard about Murder by Contract from Scorsese on Scorsese, a book of interviews on the filmmaker's career. He mentioned as a movie which made a big impression with its focus on a contract killer, and odd, off-kilter visual style.  

The film is a spare, small scale thriller following a sociopath (Vince Edwards) who commences a career killing various people. He does not care why, as long as he is paid.  Accompanied by an eerie, bouncy guitar theme, the killer is a fascinating void that the filmmakers refuse to explain.

It's an interesting flick, and frustratingly hard to find. It's sad because with its blend of genre flick and nouvelle vague-esque style, this movie feels a decade ahead of its time.

As the above video notes, Scorsese took some aspects of the film on in his own work (especially the sequences in Taxi Driver (1976) where Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) prepares himself for his 'mission').

In many ways, with its soundtrack and mordant sense of humour, the film it most resembles is Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog (1999).

Edwards was a relative unknown at the time and later became a TV star in the 60s. He gives a cold, slightly ironic edge to his performance as the killer. The character is meant to be a blank slate, .and Edwards is pretty good in the part.  It's not a star-making turn, and it is not meant to be. Edwards's performance is just another cog in the overall machine, and it functions well as a part of the whole.

There is no one notable in the cast. Like Edwards, they are all functional -- which is not a criticism. It's just the material does not demand a great deal from the players. This movie is all about style and mood.

There are several impressive set pieces in the film, as Edwards goes about his work -- one in a dentist's office, and one involving a bow and arrow. The movie has a good sense of style and humour which, as I said earlier, feels ahead of its time. You can definitely see the influence of Scorsese, especially in the mix of violence and black comedy.

No spoilers. It's better if you go in knowing as little as possible. There might be a version floating around on Youtube. If you get a chance, check it out.

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