Weekly Spotlight #1: Murder by Contract (Lerner, 1958)

In this new weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week, our inaugural film is Irving Lerner’s jaunty existentialist noir Murder by Contract.

Murder by Contract is a svelte, plucky noir that feels like a spiritual sequel of sorts to Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Not only does it have a string-based score that recalls the masterful zither of Anton Karas, it’s also driven by an existential angst wrought by its handsome antihero, a contract killer who coolly murders for a cool profit. And, yeah, both have endings involving sewers and some A-level expressionist cinematography. Murder by Contract is not in the same league as Reed’s film, nor would I trust anyone who says otherwise. It is, however, an amuse-bouche of the sort that makes you go to bed at the end of the day totally satisfied. If you’ve never heard of it before, you find yourself walking away with a fantastic new discovery. If you’ve heard of it but haven’t seen it until now, you’re glad to know it’s not a disappointment in the least. I think the only way you can leave this film dissatisfied is if you find the musings of its protagonist pretentious—which is fair! In some quarters, this could be taken as overwritten. In mine, I thought a fair balance was struck. Plus, it’s only 80 minutes. A charge of pretension might stick better if it were 120.

My big takeaway from this is its distinct modernity. The main characters espouse familiar grievances about the world: how mercenary and distant it is, and how we are always tempted towards doing ill because of the way materialist economies and capitalist interests are flaunted in our very faces. An uncaring world breeds immorality—a message not unlike that of The Third Man (man, do these similarities keep coming). Dare I say, I also detect a queer reading of the antihero’s journey here, unintentional or not. There’s something intriguing here about his reticence to take a female life, and all the ways he tries to kill Miss Williams invoke an evocative succession of queer symbology: phallic weapons (a flaming bow and arrow, a long-barreled rifle), the spectre of electroshock therapies (planning to electrocute the woman via her TV set), traces of drag (a policewoman trying on a negligee, a man’s necktie on a woman’s throat). These are hints and whispers, mind you. Nothing definitive or, perhaps, convincing in the most ironclad of ways. But taken allegorically, something must be said about a man trying repeatedly (and failing) to kill a woman locked away in her house—that his perfect streak of killing comes to an end as soon as it involves femininity. Perhaps, in those final moments, as he struggles to find the willpower to strangle his target, he recognizes that it would also be killing the feminine qualities within himself—a prospect he cannot face.

Just a thought. Alternatively, you can enjoy this without having to think too hard. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it can appease both casual and academic viewers, which should be enough to make you more willing to watch it. Right?


Murder by Contract is currently streaming for a limited time on The Criterion Channel. It is also included in Columbia Pictures’ Film Noir Classics I DVD collection.