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Joseph H. Lewis
Dame May Whitty,
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Claude is a young man with a regular job, no history of trouble with the law and no chance of making any real money. He also has the brains and emotional detachment to make the big bucks as a hit man, and that becomes his new job title. A string of successful hits gets him sent to Los Angeles for his latest job. There he is accompanied by two goons: one who is perpetually nervous and the other who quickly worships the young man as a hero. The cold, ruthless hit man finally becomes unglued when he finds out that his latest target is a woman. She's a witness, set to testify against his boss, and guarded day and night by the police. It's her femininity that worries Claude: women are unpredictable, they don't do what you expect. Claude eventually proves that he is the unpredictable one and his own worst enemy. Written by
MURDER BY CONTRACT is not at all what one might expect. This is not a studio-bound, TV-influenced, watered-down would be Film Noir. In fact, it's not a Film Noir at all, but a crime drama, at once witty and serious. This odd, quirky little film is a triumph over budget limitations. Director Irving Lerner makes the most of LA locations, interesting camera setups, a witty screenplay and a well-chosen cast.
Vince Edwards, who would later work with Lerner on 'Ben Casey', is very effective as Claude, an educated, philosophical hit man. The script is peppered with many amusing and even thought-provoking observations on Claude's 'business'. Lending equally entertaining support are Hershel Bernardi and TV stalwart Philip Pine, who play the somewhat inept hoods assigned to guide Claude to his target. While the late Kathie Browne is quite good as very confused call girl, thoroughly unprepared for the likes of Claude.
The film subverts conventional expectations at almost every turn. Besides the wit and visual interest, there is also an unusual musical score by Perry Botkin, Jr., played entirely on guitar. One theme, associated directly with Claude, has a catchy Italian pop song-style melody.
A very inventive, unexpected pleasure, MURDER BY CONTRACT deserves to be better known.
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