MURDER BY CONTRACT stars Vince Edwards as a misogynist who wants to buy a house, so he goes into the murder-for-hire business. Most of the movie is taken up by Edwards and two flunkies who drive him around L.A. while Edwards sizes up a hit. Eventually, he goes to work, but killing the target–a witness due to testify in a criminal trial–turns out to be harder than it first looks. The first attempt is laughably dumb–the screenwriter thinks that somehow by connecting some wires to the power line going into the witness’ house, she’ll be electrocuted if she turns on the T.V. Then things get more serious.
The woman-hating angle, first just a detail, now becomes a major element of Edwards’ character. Women are trouble, see, and if he knew the mark was one a those he’d have asked for more cash. Edwards goes on and on about his personal philosophy and why he will do certain jobs and not others. It gets tedious as hell.
The guitar score, innovative at first, becomes repetitive and grating. Martin Scorsese showed MBC to Howard Shore during the making of THE DEPARTED, and it was one of the scores he used as a touchstone for the guitar-centered one Shore wrote. (In the introduction, Scorsese also mentions THE THIRD MAN’s zither score.) Perry Botkin’s score is clever, but hearing the same couple of tunes over and over made me long for the top 40 approach. Cool at first, the music wears out its welcome.
With all this wrong with MURDER BY CONTRACT why am I writing about it?
With its bare-bones production and focus on an outsider hero who’s almost a blank slate, MBC is a minimalist art film noir, now stop laughing, it is! If the story just followed on from the first ten minutes, it would be a DETOUR-like cult classic. Those first few minutes show Edwards waiting for a call for a job, working out in his room like DeNiro in TAXI DRIVER, looking at the clock, time passing. The stark sets are perfect for the couple of characters we see. This would make an excellent co-feature with MICKEY ONE. The later, directed by Arthur Penn, is at least known as the movie that connected Penn with Warren Beatty and ultimately Penn directed BONNIE AND CLYDE.
When I first saw this, after ten minutes I wondered, How the Hell is this thing not considered a classic?
Then I saw the rest of the movie.
It rallies in the last ten minutes or so, but between the beginning and the end there’s just too much marking time. If Quentin Tarantino gets access to a James Cameron-like time machine for one shot at changing history, he should skip all that ‘eliminate nuclear weapons’ or ‘stop the robot takeover’ junk and go back and punch up the dialogue in the middle fifty minutes of this. As Edwards and the flunkies tool around, a few conversations about fast food or a blown-off foot would perk things up.
MURDER BY CONTRACT deserves to be seen if you love noir, but I wouldn’t recommend it to newbies. For those of us who’ve seen all the classics, though, it’s an interesting coulda-been. And those first ten minutes are gold.