Murder by Contract (1959)

Genres - Crime, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Whodunit  |   Run Time - 81 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

An offbeat thriller, almost cheerful at times despite its moments of violence and some vivid, documentary-style shooting by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Murder by Contract mostly ended up a showcase for the talents of Vince Edwards, who manages to command every scene he's in -- with or without dialogue -- as an articulate, coldly dedicated, and precise contract killer. He manages to hold his own alongside a pair of veterans, Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine, and to bring some surprising elements of humanity to a genuinely scary character. But if Edwards' portrayal is an unexpectedly fine balancing act by a relative neophyte, the real triumph is in director Irving Lerner's mixing of moods in the dialogue and the overall production. There's a cheerfully amoral side to the depiction of the action in this movie that separates it from the American cinematic sensibilities that dominate most film noir. The intentionally comic interchanges between the three hoods as they try to understand each other's way of working, and also the relentless guitar score by Perry Botkin (who later provided the background music for The Beverly Hillbillies and utilized one major cue heard here on that series), all seem to run counter to anything that audiences expected in a movie such as this; and coupled with the relatively involved character development, it makes Murder by Contract a surprisingly rewarding, disturbing, and entertaining movie that almost manages to fall in a class by itself among American crime films.