The Underexposed Cinema of Irving Lerner – Part One

Murder By Contract poster artIrving who? The name may not be familiar to you but perhaps the film MURDER BY CONTRACT rings a bell? A once relatively obscure film noir thriller shot in Los Angeles and released in 1958, it has often been championed by Martin Scorsese over the years and more recently by several film bloggers who were lucky enough to see it in retrospectives such as Film Forum’s noir series in 2006. It’s a tautly directed minor masterpiece with a fascinating performance by Vince Edwards. He plays Claude, a coldly efficient hit man who likes to make a nice clean kill with no mess, no slip-ups, and no surprises due to poor planning – “I wasn’t born this way; I trained myself! I eliminated all personal feeling.”  

Vince Edwards

Poor Vince has never gotten much respect as an actor but that’s because most people only remember his reserved but compassionate one-note performance as “Ben Casey,” the popular TV medical series that ran from 1961-1966. MURDER BY CONTRACT was the role he was born to play and to state the obvious Vince was never the best choice to play goody-two-shoes leading men. Almost every line of dialogue the misogynistic Claude delivers in this film is quotable if you’re drunk at a stag party circa 1958: “The human female is descended from a monkey!” Vince was also quite memorable as the scariest of the three thugs terrorizing Jack Kelly’s family in THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955) – scarier even than his hoodlum co-star John Cassavetes whose film TOO LATE BLUES he would appear in in 1961. He’s also cool and devious in Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956) as the young hot shot who’s double-crossing Elisha Cook, Jr. in a heist ripoff with Cook’s wife, Marie Windsor. And he popped up in some prestige projects too such as I AM A CAMERA (1955, based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”, the basis for CABARET), the Oscar winning THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957) and Carl Foreman’s war epic THE VICTORS (1963).

Murder By Contract

MURDER BY CONTRACT is told in crisp, lean vignettes and starting from the opening credit sequence with Claude shaving and primping in front of a mirror for an important meeting, you can tell this is one methodical head case. After successfully completing several seamless hits (dispatched with a brief artful economy), he gets a big stakes contract for a stoolpigeon named Billy Williams. The client, a big time gangster boss, wants Billy silenced before testifying in a courtroom case against him. But when Claude learns Billy (a former nightclub pianist) is a woman he develops a chink in his mental armor. “I…don’t like women; they don’t stand still; they’re not dependable! It’s hard to kill somebody who’s not dependable.”

Lerner delivers a B movie that doesn’t look or sound like any other genre knockoff and part of the attraction is his often unexpected juxtapositions, pairing a Spartan visual style with Perry Botkin, Jr.’s exotic guitar accompaniment which invokes roots music from Sicily or Greece. He keeps you guessing every step of the way but it’s easy to be distracted by the stunning black and white cinematography of Los Angeles in 1958. Which brings us to Lucien Ballard who’s the cinematographer.

There’s an original approach to the framing of shots (a floor level view of bound and gagged barbershop employees as Edwards prepares to cut the throat of an unsuspecting victim in the front of the shop). Ballard also moves smoothly from the outdoors (Edwards and two gangster clients tooling around Los Angeles in a convertible) to long static takes indoors in which Edward’s alienated psychological state is subtly revealed through his body language and actions. The montage sequence where we observe him over a two week period never leaving his room while he waits for a client’s phone call is masterful and will obviously remind you of Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER and maybe even Jef Costello in LE SAMOURAI. He does pull-ups from a closet rod, push-ups off two chairs, he prepares for bed repeatedly, and he calls in food orders and lays out the measy dime tips on the cardtable in front of him, parsing one out to each delivery boy like a machine.

James Ellroy

I don’t want to tell you too much more about the film because you’ll be able to enjoy it for yourself in November on TCM when it’s co-hosted by noir expert and author James Ellroy (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), pictured above, and Robert Osborne during “Guest Programmer Month.” But I do want to leave you with this quote from Scorsese on MURDER BY CONTRACT: “ This is the film that has influenced me the most. I had a clip out of it in Mean Streets but had to take it out: it was too long, and a little too esoteric…Lerner was an artist who knew how to do things in shorthand, like Bresson and Godard. The film puts us all to shame with its economy of style, especially in the barbershop murder at the beginning…Murder By Contract was a favorite of neighborhood guys who didn’t know anything about movies. They just liked the film because they recognized something unique about it.”

Captain Apache

After seeing MURDER BY CONTRACT for the first time I wanted to find out more about Lerner and was amazed to see how many different types of films he had worked on and in different capacities. Here was a former research editor for Columbia University’s Encyclopedia of Social Sciences who ended up becoming the head of New York University’s Educational Film Institute after World War II. He then hooked up with director Joseph Strick (THE SAVAGE EYE) on a short documentary, MUSCLE BEACH (1948), and then on his own made SUICIDE ATTACK, a 1951 documentary that utilized captured Japanese footage to show WWII (especially the live combat) from the Japanese point of view. After that, Lerner entered the B movie industry but more on that in part two. He also produced several documentaries including TO HEAR YOUR BANJO PLAY (1947) which he co-directed with the great Willard Van Dyke (THE CITY, 1938) and featured Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, & Sonny Terry & Brownee McGhee among others and the big budget Western CUSTER OF THE WEST (1967) starring Robert Shaw. He even dabbled in producing some spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef – CAPTAIN APACHE (1971) and BAD MAN’S RIVER (1971).

Robot Monster

But it gets weirder. He served as a technical advisor on both ROBOT MONSTER (1953) and Anthony Mann’s GOD’S LITTLE ACRE (1953). He worked as an associate editor on EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973), the Dalton Trumbo scripted dramatization of the plot to assassinate President Kennedy. He worked as an actor in Jose Luis Borau’s HAY QUE MATAR A B. (1975, aka “B Must Die) opposite Darren McGavin, Stephane Audran, and Patricia Neal. I swear I am not hallucinating! To top it off he served as an uncredited editor on Kubrick’s SPARTACUS as well as Fred Haines’s 1974 film adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s STEPPENWOLF and the documentary MUSTANG: THE HOUSE THAT JOE BUILT (1978), Robert Guralnick’s documentary on America’s first legal brothel – in Nevada. WHAT? Who the heck is this guy? Next week I’ll cover some of his other films as a director including the follow-up to MURDER BY CONTRACTCITY OF FEAR (1959).

Mustang Ranch

8 Responses The Underexposed Cinema of Irving Lerner – Part One
Posted By RHS : August 5, 2007 12:41 am

Now that's a resume!  Captain Apache is one of my top shelf guilty pleasures and I often sing the theme song (when no one else is around). 

Posted By RHS : August 5, 2007 12:41 am

Now that's a resume!  Captain Apache is one of my top shelf guilty pleasures and I often sing the theme song (when no one else is around). 

Posted By Dr. Stuckey : August 5, 2007 6:42 pm

Is the soundtrack available for MURDER BY CONTRACT? I love it. It's much better than ZORBA THE GREEK though the subject matter is much different. Zorba is a pro-life film but Murder is a film about a flawed nihilist with a happy, upbeat soundtrack. Perfect for these times. Brilliant!

Posted By Dr. Stuckey : August 5, 2007 6:42 pm

Is the soundtrack available for MURDER BY CONTRACT? I love it. It's much better than ZORBA THE GREEK though the subject matter is much different. Zorba is a pro-life film but Murder is a film about a flawed nihilist with a happy, upbeat soundtrack. Perfect for these times. Brilliant!

Posted By Mike D : August 7, 2007 8:26 am

ROBOT MONSTER had a technical advisor?!?

Posted By Mike D : August 7, 2007 8:26 am

ROBOT MONSTER had a technical advisor?!?

Posted By Nick Z. : August 9, 2007 7:24 pm

One thing you don't often hear about Murder by Contract is its quirky,offbeat sense of humor. For a film about a cold, unemotional hit man, there is a lot of black comedy and some very amusing character development. The whole interplay between Edwards and the two gangland contractors who stick to him like glue until the big hit is done is unexpectedly amusing at times. Especially when the usually terse Edwards pulls up a chair, backwards style, and expounds on his world view to his companions' complete surprise. 

Posted By Nick Z. : August 9, 2007 7:24 pm

One thing you don't often hear about Murder by Contract is its quirky,offbeat sense of humor. For a film about a cold, unemotional hit man, there is a lot of black comedy and some very amusing character development. The whole interplay between Edwards and the two gangland contractors who stick to him like glue until the big hit is done is unexpectedly amusing at times. Especially when the usually terse Edwards pulls up a chair, backwards style, and expounds on his world view to his companions' complete surprise. 

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