Lerner: Murder by Contract (1958)
There’s no noir quite like Murder by Contract – partly because Murder by Contract is not quite noir anymore, despite exhibiting some of the residual traits of 40s and 50s crime cinema. Directed by Irving Lerner, and written by Ben Simcoe, it revolves around a hitman, Claude, played by Vince Edwards, who starts off in what appears to be the Midwest, but takes a job in Los Angeles for the main part of the film. Once he’s there, he meets a pair of handlers, George, played by Herschel Bernardi, and Marc, played by Phillip Pine, who wait, bemused, as he soaks in the city before finally declaring himself ready. Only when Claude arrives at the target’s house do George and Marc inform him that she’s a woman – Billie Williams, played by Caprice Toriel, who’s on the verge of being a star witness in an organised crime crackdown.
As those French names might suggest, Murder by Contract exudes an effortless cool – a New Wave vibe that propels it out of classic noir and into a more properly postmodern sensibility. The dialogue is clipped and economical, and the scenes tend to be brief and aphoristic, while the violence has a kind of stylised frankness, baroque and pragmatic at the same time, anticipaing Scorsese and Tarantino. Every scene brims with a cryptic immediacy, exacerbated by the jaunty score, which makes it hard to tell just how much it’s all supposed to be ironised.
In that sense, Murder by Contract often recalls the more existential noir that was emerging in France at this time – especially the films of Jean-Pierre Melville – but with a distinctively American sense of pragmatism and play. In French films, the hit man was a profoundly existential figure – the end point of individualism, a sole trader who had left social institutions behind, living by nothing except his own personal code of conduct. That carries over into Claude’s characterisation too – or his lack of characterisation, his peculiar blankness. Time and again, he emphasises total control – “I trained myself – I eliminate personal feelings” – and his disregard for regular social or professional relationships. Back in the Midwest, he obeys his local boss dutifully, but doesn’t flinch when his top boss orders the local boss killed.
If Claude has any “character,” it resides in his relationship to space, and his profound need for control over space. This starts with his personal space, since he’s fastidious about small details of etiquette and expression, from the way he greets people, to his trademark leather jacket, which splits the difference between mid-century masculinity and emerging youth subcultures. His motivation for becoming a hitman is also spatial – he wants to buy his dream property, but his day job isn’t enough, even though it’s respectable, and comes with a pension and benefits. It’s here that Lerner and Simcoe put a more American spin on hitman existentialism. For all that he claims to exist outside the system, Claude only becomes an assassin so he can inhabit the system – so he can achieve a conventional middle-class dream.
This adds a distinctively American absurdity to Claude’s project, an absurdity we hear before we see – in the jaunty score that doesn’t seem to match up with the images in the opening Midwestern scenes. There’s also something slightly absurd about Claude’s pronouncements, as if he’s just one step away from being a self-help guru, or a door-to-door salesman. We never find out what his day job entails, but you see glimpses of a more banal professionalism in the midst of his most existential statements – the system creeping through, and announcing itself, precisely when he claims to be detaching himself completely from its grasp.
The result is a picaresque tone that plays out largely in terms of Claude’s relation to space – and his need to command space. In the opening scenes, he has very little control over space – we barely glimpse the world outside his apartment, while Lerner only resorts to the briefest of establishing shots. Even the interiors are shrouded in darkness, leaving us to intuit that this is the Midwest from the anonymity of it all – an anonymity that usually stood in for Middle America at a time when noirs tended to be emphatically East or West Coast in their outlook.
This all changes when Claude gets to Los Angeles, partly because this trip marks his graduation to a new level within his shadowy organised crime circle, meaning he’s one step closer to the spatial autonomy he craves. Upon meeting his handlers, George and Marc, Claude reveals that he has to meditatively immerse himself in the sheer sprawl of the city before even seeing his target. He does this in two ways – first, by exploring every experience that the Pacific Ocean has to offer; second, by cruising every conceivable highway that the city has to offer. Ocean life and highway travel thus come to stand for a new kind of spatial sprawl and horizon.
During these early scenes, you sense that Claude needs to commit the hit as an Angeleno, which means that the city has to feel lived-in to him. Through the ocean and highways, he immerses himself in the ebb and flow of the city, until he is poised enough to rearrange its rhythms around the kill. He hates guns, and seems to hate physical combat as well, instead preferring to let the city resolve the events of the kill for him – as if he could make the hit happen with sheer mindfulness. To that end, he sinks into a supreme state of relaxation as the hit grows closer, suffusing the film with a mellow languor that feels like the first fragrance of the counterculture to come. Yet this balminess doesn’t slow down the pacing of the film either, producing an oddly distended zaniness that often reminded me of Thomas Pynchon.
When Claude finds out the nature of his target, his project is clarified further. Since she’s a star witness, a source of privileged information, he has to subsume himself into the information flow of the city to properly contain her. From the stature of the trial, it seems as if she may have the most valuable information in the entire city, at this point in time, meaning that Claude has to work doubly hard to shape the city to his own purpose. Since the trial appears to involve the entertainment industry, or a link between organised crime and the entertainment industry, Claude realises he must tap into Los Angeles’ specific media ecology.
Before he even does this, however, he has to check how imbricated his handlers are in this media ecology. Accordingly, after exhausting the ocean and highways, his last stop before the hit is a movie theatre. Midway through the feature, he slips out, waits for George and Marc, and then trails them throughout the city, to see whether they’re double agents, or if they’re working against him in some way. In effect, he segues what’s happening on the screen back into the city outside, testing whether people in the real world are playing a role – and this fusion of diegetic and extra-diegetic space contours his final trajectory across the metropolis.
You start to sense the start of a more simulacral Los Angeles here, an image economy that bleeds out across regular space and time – and this continues into the first assassination attempt. Claude learns that Billie is a confirmed “television addict,” and that her house is peculiarly well-wired to receive television signals. Although we never learn where Billie is hiding out, it appears to be some way out of town, perhaps in the canyons or the mountains, but she compensates for that distance with an extraordinary array of wires surrounding her property, which Lerner evokes with a series of extravagant fades and evocative panning shots.
Upon learning that Billie is a television addict, Claude sets out to kill her remotely, by manipulating the television flow around her in an especially destructive way – to kill her through images, rather than direct physical violence. After observing her for a few days, he realises that she turns on the television at the same time each morning, so he manipulates the wires to engineer a death by electrocution next time she turns on the box. Yet Claude is thwarted by the fact that Billie enjoys an even more remote ability to manipulate images – literally, since she’s saved by a remote control device that prevents her touching the electrocuted screen. Remotes were novel at the time, so Claude has to innovate in response.
Claude’s first instinct is to fall back on cinema, but this quickly turns into self-parody – a fleeting idea of securing an anti-tank gun under the guise of being a director. Rather than turn backwards from television to cinema, he realises he needs to think forwards, and anticipate the next medium beyond television – or at least draw on the same reflexive curiosity as television, the same instinctive compulsion to see what’s going on, that we now associate with social media. Put simply, Claude needs to beat Billie to the television each morning, and he does this by embedding the media ecology back into the literal local ecology. Nothing is more urgently ambient in Los Angeles than the smell of wildfires – it’s even more insidious and compelling than television – so Claude decides to light a fire just before Billie turns on the box, and so lure her to the window, where he can shoot her and then make a quick escape.
The smell of wildfires thus evokes a new media horizon, anticipating a different kind of virtual proximity – and for a moment, Claude seems to have occupied this new horizon, this more postmodern apprehension of Los Angeles. He shoots Billie, she falls to the floor, and she’s wheeled out under a sheet a while later. Yet Claude gradually starts to suspect that the city has got the better of him, and that even this situation he himself has constructed has become a spectacle put on for his benefit. Little by little, it emerges that the prosecution may have wrested control of the information flow again – that they might have found away to put any further assassination attempts to bed. For all Claude’s efforts to immerse himself in the city, and shape it to his needs, some deeper capacity for simulation within the city fights back, leaking out the information in ways that seem both random and intentional; oddly dispersed. It’s only during a random encounter with a call girl, at the end of the unlikeliest chain of communication, that Claude discovers that Billie has indeed survived and is still able to testify.
This leads to a hallucinatory third act that collapses real and imaginary space in bizarre and hallucinatory ways. Claude’s handlers try to kill him by luring him onto an old movie studio, where he turns the tables on them, momentarily adopting a series of western poses before fleeting back into the city. Then, Claude visits the Hall of Records to examine the exact coordinates of Billie’s house, in a desperate attempt to nail down a more concrete sense of space. Even as he’s doing so, however, it feels as if he’s perusing the plans for his own dream house. It’s as if Claude’s effort to purchase his dream house depends on his ability to cement Billie’s house as a real space here – and this leads us into the film’s sublime final sequence.
Rather than trying to command space in any totalising way, Claude now settles for immersing himself in connective tissue, navigating the culverts, drains and pipes that surround Billie’s property, where he once aspired to the sublime singularity of his sniper sight. Instead of trying to combat Billie as an image, or as part of a media ecology, he now relies on his own hands. Yet the moment he breaks into her apartment, he has to play a role, and pretend to be a police officer. Similary, when he has a chance to kill her, standing behind her as she plays at her piano, he finds himself curiously impotent, defied by the sheer intensity of her as an image, as a repository of sublime information. In the most surreal sequence of the film, the sequence that slips it over into a properly postmodern fugue, Lerner expands his shot of the back of Billie’s neck until it’s dazing, dazzling, like the brilliant white of an empty film screen.
In this last sequence, we see action itself break down, as we move between close-ups of Claude trying to move, and Billie’s neck looming as an image that defies any action. The police arrive, Claude flees back through the panel, and the film ends with two images of fractured male agency – Billie holding the necktie Claude was planning to strangle her with, and Claude’s own hand, reaching back in through the culvert, and faltering as he succumbs to the final shoot-out. Yet Lerner doesn’t let Claude’s hand fall completely, leaving us suspended between action and image, and poising us at the very moment at which the city finally repels Claude’s effort to thwart its emergent simulations, which grow even stronger in the process.
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