Friday, November 13, 2009
murder by contract...
I find it much more difficult to write about things that I like rather than things that I dislike. When I don't like something, it tends to be for fairly concrete reasons. It's fairly easy to pick out a film's flaws, they tend to be right on the surface, or very near it. And disliking things is funny, and funny. Who doesn't enjoy taking to task a work of art or media that doesn't manage to live up to what it promises? Especially when that work gives off a sense of self-importance, or otherwise just seems to take itself too seriously. Over the 2 or 3 years I've been doing this blog, that's mostly what I've found myself drawn to, the ridiculous and the sublime.
With things that I like, the reasons tend to be more ephemeral and harder to specifically pin down. At the heart of many of these things is an aura, an essence, a certain purity (sometimes maybe an impurity). It's hard to establish a standing criteria of what makes these things work. In a way, it's almost better to leave them not so thoroughly examined. Left alone, they seem mysterious and magical. I mean, things are wonderful specifically because they inspire wonder. It's sort of like pinning down a live butterfly. You could do it, but in the process, you'd probably kill it, and that just doesn't feel as good as watching it fly around. I mean, that isn't always the case 100% of the time, but I think in a great many cases it hold true (I'd just like to take a second to note that, as far as I can recall, I've never purposefully killed a butterfly).
This is all kind of a roundabout way of saying that I absolutely fucking loved the movie MURDER BY CONTRACT. From 1958, this is a late-period noir and a fascinating cathexis of the evolution of cinema style from the 1940s and 50s into the 1960s. In many ways it reminded me of another later noir, BLAST OF SILENCE, from 1961, which has enjoyed a bit of a revival over the past couple of years. MURDER BY CONTRACT is tough and mean like many of the best of the genre, but it's also smart, not just intelligently written, but intelligently made. It's elusive and at times somewhat confounding, not everything about all the characters is revealed, some things are left to mystery. The dialogue splits the difference between the stylized back-and-forth banter of earlier noir and a more natural style that certainly wasn't the norm in mainstream film for many years to come. Even in non-mainstream film, MURDER BY CONTRACT predates the extreme naturalism of John Cassavetes SHADOWS by a year. Despite the confluence of styles, it never feels especially stilted, the different qualities blend together well.
The story is fairly simple. Vince Edwards plays a fledgling contract killer who's sent out to kill the witness in an upcoming trial. Edwards seems like a real cool customer, very calculating if somewhat eccentric. He's also a bit of an understated egomaniac, clearly believing himself to be above it all (one of his handlers sarcastically refers to him as "Superman"), yet he's thrown for a loop when his discovers that his target is a woman. The hit begins to appear jinxed when several of Edwards' complex murder plots prove unsuccessful. By the end, his character is a bit more desperate than even he thought possible, and naturally things go from bad to worse.
Perhaps it's a personal failing, an inability or unwillingness to really show enthusiasm, but I feel kind of uncomfortable going on about MURDER BY CONTRACT's beautiful, yet simple, black and white cinematography (shot by Lucien Ballard, of Otto Preminger's LAURA and Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH), or how great its unusual music score was (by Perry Botkin). Maybe I'm just an asshole who likes taking potshots at easy targets but blanches at the thought of actually expressing admiration for a work of art that has moved me in some way. I dunno. Director Irving Lerner made about a dozen films between the 40s and the 60s, then worked in TV and later became an editor. One of his last credits is as supervising editor on Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK, which was dedicated to him (he died in 1976, before the film came out). He also worked with Anthony Mann on GOD'S LITTLE ACRE and MEN IN WAR (one could draw a connection between Mann's noir films and MURDER BY CONTRACT).
So anyway, that's my uncomfortable attempt at writing about something that I liked. Something that I loved. See MURDER FOR CONTRACT, it's out on DVD.