Last week, film lovers had reason to rejoice with the launch of the Criterion Channel, an offshoot of the sadly defunct FilmStruck run by the Criterion Collection. FilmStruck was both a wonderful resource and a source of entertainment, and the hope is that Criterion Channel will carry on that tradition. There are mixed feelings about the channel, given the loss of jobs attached to FilmStruck and the loss of the TCM component. But Criterion is making a good start on trying to fill the FilmStruck-shaped void, with a library the includes curated collections, Criterion-owned films with extras and interviews, and a revolving door of licensed films from other studios and distributors.
The 1958 film noir Murder by Contract is included in the channel’s “Columbia Noir” collection. The film is touted as a major influence on Scorsese’s style, a Hollywood/American version of the existential crime thrillers that Godard, Melville, and Becker were making popular in France. Murder by Contract stars Vince Edwards as Claude, a cold-blooded killer who becomes a hitman to save money for a home. He’s ruthlessly good at his job, working his way upwards until he’s assigned to travel to LA to kill a witness against a mob boss. Claude meets his handlers Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Herschel Bernardi) to scope out the mark, who’s holed up in a house in the Hollywood hills and surrounded by a police cordon. But Claude’s biggest problem is that the victim is a woman, whom he considers less predictable and harder to kill than a man. As Claude tries to work out how to complete his contract before the trial, his existential philosophy begins to unravel, drawing into question his entire ethos and confidence in his trade.
The film marries style and substance with a relentless intensity that we often associate with French films of the period. Claude’s world is pared down to its barest essentials by design rather than by necessity; his lack of empathy for his marks is something he creates instead of something that is intrinsic to him, like he’s consciously created his own personality in order to do his job. While there’s no direct reference to post-war America, the film implies that the world has changed to produce men like Claude, willing and capable of killing without compunction, but with an odd sense of morality that is at times at odds with the society they’ve chosen. Claude refuses to carry a gun and usually murders his victims without one; he touts his honesty in his contributions to society not because he believes that he needs to contribute to the world, but because it enables him to stay on the right side of the law in everything except his job. He’s a hitman because he’s good at it; it provides a shortcut to what he wants out of life, even though prior to becoming one he had a good job and decent prospects. Claude’s handlers view him with a combination of fear and fascination; he’s “superman” to Marc and an idol to George, but utterly inaccessible to both, even as he spins moral philosophy to explain (but never justify) his choices.
Murder by Contract is a sharp, spare, stylish thriller, fantastically tense even as it gives the viewer, for the most part, no one to root for. It’s emblematic of what we all hope the Criterion Channel will continue to offer: films that are well-restored, not necessarily famous but important, fascinating for their place in cinematic history, and entertaining for themselves alone.
Murder by Contract is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.