Murder By Contract (1958)

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First time with Irving Lerner I believe.

Some thing almost fascistically Randian about Claude’s impulse for physical self-improvement, coupled with his desire to become gun-for-hire despite already working a steady job. His apparent initial greed is undercut by the methodical patience of his process (“There’s too many doers in the world not enough people take time to think”); efficiency and twisted morality (“I brush my teeth three times a day and I obey local speed limits”) of Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter. But, in the prologue section, the figure who really suggests himself is Travis Bickle; no surprise to read that Scorsese loved this. Cruising, inexorability, blackened cynicism, domestic fidgeting. C’s beliefs and justifications suck you into the film; they later comment on ruthless capitalism, with a terrifying unblinking speech about cutting costs vs cutting throats and the fundamental similarity between assassination and competition.

MBC is also very distinctive stylistically. Read comparisons with the French new wave and I certainly see Bresson in the elliptical efficiency – an early contract in a barbershop is hitchcock-level suggestive and terrifying. Welles all over the place too: Touch of Evil in the motel showdown, Lady From Shanghai in the geometry, Third Man in the final shot. All the time under bleached-out LA sunshine, languid isolation in Antonioni streets.

Unfortunately the pulpy sensibility does tip over into some ridiculous moments, such as C bizarrely berating a hapless waiter for his complicity in ruthless capitalism, or the way C’s misogyny is much less poisonously alluring than his misanthropy (“the human female is descended from the monkey”). And when you’re spending most of the 80 minutes with three characters you feel the need for decent acting from more than just one of them (C reminded me of a midpoint between Brando and Ruffalo). Still a lean and clean B noir with a jazzy sense of cool and a masterful efficiency.

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