Saturday, July 30, 2016

MURDER BY CONTRACT (1958)


From the film’s opening scene you experience the seemingly mundane life of an ordinary man. Perry Botkin’s minimalist guitar score, befitting an avant garde film, fits the quirky central character, played by Vince Edwards. The music is subdued and disengaged from any particular scene and you may have the tune plunking in your head for another twenty-four hours. It belies a hired killer premise. Yet in the same unusual way Edwards dispatches his contract hits, it is appropriate. He is smart, cautious and creative. Added with some great camera points of view, this eighty-one minute film has cult classic written all over it. The shoestring budgeted film may bore you or enthrall you.

Although Edwards has a decent job and pension, he wants to be a “contractor” to bring in money faster. He sets up a meeting with a former mob boss. Edwards knows nothing about contract killing. Never done it before. But in a Career Builder upgrade, he would like to kill people for money. After waiting nearly two weeks for a return call, all the while staying fit by doing pull-ups and push-ups in his apartment, Edwards’ first contract is a local barber. Getting a bad haircut is not taken lightly in these parts. He poses as a barber in period white apron with banded collar. He later uses same apron to pose as a medical doctor with a stethoscope accessory. We quickly notice that our film has edited in a scene from Ben Casey! His most recent contract is the former mob boss himself. Now that he has reached an acceptable level of murder, he is sent to Los Angeles where henchmen, Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine pick him up at the train station. In sunglasses and a calm, restrained voice similar to one Dirty Harry will make famous, Edwards just wants to see Los Angeles before doing anything else. He loves LA. We ride along with an in-car camera for awhile. A real treat as there are plenty of humorous studio projected backdrops signaling a limited budget. Edwards soon starts acting like he is in charge and will take care of the hit when he is good and ready. Pine's patience is running thin. A nervous guy who is beside himself with Edwards’ superior attitude.


Edwards is there to kill a high profile witness, played by Caprice Toriel, in her only acting role, to testify against the henchmen’s own boss. She has a pretty nasty and ungrateful attitude toward her in-house police protection. To be fair, it is her lack of acting experience in finding the right balance between frayed nerves and anger. Edwards is visibly upset when he is informed the hit is not a man. Men are creatures of habit. Predictable. Women are unpredictable. Hard to read.



Reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote, in a complicated process he wires her TV to explode when she turns it on. But he did not count on a remote control keeping her a distance from the set. Drat! Next, Edwards searches a sporting goods store for the right weapon. A rapier? No. At one point he stops to consider a gatling gun! With tight security at the witness’ home, the only way to kill her is to get her to the front door. As a distraction, he trains Bernardi’s accuracy in the use of an amateur’s bow and arrow to shoot kerosene-tipped arrows into the nearby brush. Had no idea it was that difficult to shoot an arrow randomly in the air, potentially setting half of California to flames. Despite Edwards’ aversion to guns it is the only way. He pulls the trigger on the high-powered rifle as she opens the door. She falls.

In a sequence that may leave you scratching your head, thinking the DVD has skipped ahead several minutes (or days) or you missed an earlier appearance, out of the blue appears Kathy Browne, female escort. Apparently Edwards called an agency asking for a companion for the evening. Why he is not in a good mood is odd. He has completed his contract and he is home free. Obviously, he has issues with women in general. It is not a particularly fun encounter for her as he treats her with disdain because no one could possibly live up to his superior expectations. His disrespectful comments roll right off her, however. Her role as a slightly ditsy, unassuming lady is noteworthy, yet odd when after only a few sips of wine, she instantly becomes a bit tipsy. She freely shares inside information about who was actually murdered at the door and the newspaper headlines were fake. All of which reveals why she was written into the script. Visibly rattled, Edwards now knows he actually had killed an undercover policewoman. Double drat!


With the second foiled attempt, Bernardi and Pine now have orders to take out Edwards but he kills them both instead. Edwards obtains ACME survey blueprints of the estate and notes a large drainage pipe leading to the house. Once at the house, he appears to crawl through an outdoor fireplace which miraculously leads to a metal door in the very room where a policemen is dozing. At this point, the film starts falling short of a perfect ending. Overtaking the officer with a blow to the head, he assumes the relief officer on duty as Toriel enters the room. An accomplished musician, she begins playing the piano to help calm her nerves. In fact, Edwards demands she play. And look straight ahead. She sees him take off his tie yet she still is able to play the correct notes. I said she was accomplished. He reaches a reality point and does not have the nerve to strangle her. He should have bought the gatling gun. She vows not to scream if he leaves. The police throw tear gas down the drainage pipe during his escape. Triple drat! It makes for an abrupt if not disappointing ending. Perhaps a better ending (which has since been done many times) would have had Edwards leave Los Angeles after the Browne encounter and then be tracked down in his own style of sophisticated, unsuspecting elimination in a twist of fate.



This is a B-movie that seems a decade ahead of itself in a number of ways. I recommend it. One of those quirky gems that few recall. Edwards is fine as a disturbed, angry human with no regard for the sanctity of life. To overcompensate for his aberrant behavior he has developed a superior attitude toward everyone else. I imagine this film disturbed a lot of young minds and fully understand Martin Scorsese being highly influenced it.

2 comments:

  1. Great post. Thanks for submitting to The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party

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  2. Not to repeat myself, Edwards career interests me, especially before his huge success with his moody, "Ben Casey" character on TV. Could even catch him singing on variety shows occasionally! I think his ego got out of hand for awhile.

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