2019 Film Essays

The Loneliness of the Contract Killer: Music in ‘Murder by Contract’

In discussions of film noir, it’s generally accepted that the style is built on some basic tropes: an anxious or fatalistic tone, a particular set of visual techniques and desperate, scrabbling characters who don’t stand a chance. Music is rarely mentioned, if at all — which is too bad. Classic dark films like Double Indemnity, Laura and The Big Sleep employ music as ably and as subtly as camera angles to create the noir moods of isolation, fear, sexiness, surprise and doom. But perhaps no other noir relies as heavily on the soundtrack to develop its theme and reveal its characters as does Murder by Contract, director Irving Lerner’s 1957 low-budget, high-concept gem.

Claude is an ambitious hit man on career’s upswing. To quote a line, he’s the best at what he does, though not because he’s particularly violent or bloodthirsty. His consummate professionalism, his unbroken streak of successful kills, is possible through a self-imposed regimen of emotional erasure. Other characters confuse this with the stoic’s pose. Claude quickly corrects them. He doesn’t control his feelings, he has excised them altogether.

“I wasn’t born this way,” he says. “I trained myself. I eliminated personal feelings.”

Played by Vince Edwards (The Killing and City of Fear), Claude’s school-boy dedication to the business of murder is strangely endearing. He possesses the naïve assurance of a wide-eyed, ambitious youth: apply yourself and you’ll go far. Singularly dedicated to success in his chosen occupation, Claude lives a monk’s life. When not out on assignment, he retreats to a one-room apartment and keeps himself in killer trim with rounds of calisthenics.

Clearly a sociopath, Claude rationalizes the demands of his profession through a nihilistic reading of capitalist clichés. “It’s business. The same as any other business — you murder the competition. Instead of price cutting, it’s throat cutting. Same thing.”

And in a perverted bourgeois aspiration, Claude’s ultimate goal isn’t simple wealth or a life of luxury, but the purchase of a house on the Ohio River.

Murder by Contract’s flat gray color tones (rather than noir’s typical chiaroscuro) reflect Claude’s emotional numbness. What really makes the movie a one-of-a-kind 80 minutes is the soundtrack. Consisting solely of composer Perry Botkin’s jazz guitar, it conveys the twisted and joyful flippancy Claude brings to his work. When Claude is stalking a victim or delivering one of his several mini-lectures on expediency versus morality, it plucks a Greco-like pace reminiscent of the zither in The Third Man. Other times, sudden chords add a jaunty or ironic note to the action.

Anyway, things are going along fine for Claude. He’s a trusted contractor, on retainer no less, and the go-to man for difficult jobs, the ones requiring discretion and efficiency. Then comes the California assignment. Claude is dispatched to knock off Billie Williams, a former night-club performer turned state’s witness set to testify against some important operators.

It’s a difficult mission: Williams is hunkered down in a secluded estate outside L.A. and under 24-hour protection by a small army of police. Claude seems unfazed. He’s so self-assured that he spends the week in California surfing, deep-sea fishing and driving golf balls at the range, all the while backgrounded by a merry guitar that suggests a West Coast beach party rather than a professional hit.

But as Claude might say, prone as he is to cliché and jargon (another example of a personality whittled to a purely autonomic level), there’s a wrench in the works. The target Billie Williams is a woman.

Once so poised — a planner, a doer — Claude suddenly sputters with excuses and caveats. They should’ve told him Williams wasn’t a man. The job is impossible. He needs to be paid 10 times as much. He’ll call back East and haggle an upped fee before making a move. The lack of confidence is jarring. As unusual is the sudden crack in his cool facade. Brow furrowed, eyes unfocused and distant, Claude appears confused for the first time.

Then Claude plainly states that he doesn’t kill women — not from any chivalric ideal, but because he holds them in contempt. “I don’t like women,” he tells his L.A. handlers. “They don’t stand still. When they move, it’s hard to figure why or wherefore. They’re not dependable. It’s tough to kill somebody who’s not dependable.”

Women don’t conform to Claude’s utilitarian, mechanistic world view. In his eyes, women represent the wild, unbidden forces (because there’s a danger of a sexual or emotional attraction?) he’s spent his life trying to purge from himself. Claude has nothing in common with the other gender — except in the case of Billie. Stuck with nothing to do all day until the trial but watch TV and boss around plain-clothes cops, she spends much of her time playing the piano. Billie and Claude are the Murder by Contract characters associated with music.

During the first attempt on Billie’s life — featuring a complex rigging of her TV antenna to a high-voltage power line running through the desert hills — Claude’s guitar slowly bleeds into the target’s piano. The sources are different. Claude gets a soundtrack. The piano is diegetic. But it’s clear the characters are meant to be linked.

There are subsequent and as convoluted murder schemes involving fire, a bow and arrow, and a sniper’s rifle, but once the deed is finally done, Claude’s relief is palpable. He even becomes a little jolly while enjoying a celebratory drink. Dispelled is the worry that he isn’t the implacable killer he’s worked so hard to become. Claude can return to the hit-man life, emotional imperviousness intact.

But it turns out Billie is still alive. Rather than making another dicey, long-range attempt, Claude sneaks into the woman’s home, determined to make sure the thing is done right. He finds her at the piano. Paralyzed with fear, Billie submits to fate’s approach and plays furiously, the music growing louder and louder, as Claude slips a noose around her neck.

Then the keyboard goes silent and Claude’s thrumming guitar track takes over. There’s a closeup of him — the camera studying his reaction rather than the actual murder – and he reels away without harming Billie. Minutes later, Murder by Contract ends with Claude metaphorically and literally trapped in a pitch-black drain pipe, armed police waiting for him at either end.

At first, it might seem like Murder by Contract intends Claude to be one in the long line of puerile sociopaths terrified of women and their own sexual urges: Eddie Miller (The Sniper, 1952), The Lipstick Killer (While the City Sleeps, 1956), Norman Bates (Psycho, 1960). The fear leads them to kill.

However, the guitar paired with Billie’s piano, especially when Claude fails to murder her, contradicts that easy read. It suggests that Claude understands Billie’s terror and therefore retains human empathy despite his work to remove such troublesome emotions. If this is the case, is the solitary Claude also lonely? He has admitted all this murder and killing is for a home. Would he want to share it with a family or at least a wife?

No less a director than Martin Scorsese seems to have identified Claude as more than a frustrated misogynist. Scorsese has said that he referenced Claude when shooting Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Despite his “morbid self-obsession,” Bickle, like Claude, is a mass of unrecognized needs and unexamined urges, but which originate in a desire for, rather than disdain of, human connection.

What Claude doesn’t understand is that his killer’s mindset isn’t an idea he invented. Instead, he’s merely adopted American society’s worship of capitalism and reverence for the ruthless entrepreneur. It’s telling that all of Murder by Contract’s human interactions involve either money or business. The illusions of the profit motive and market forces have alienated Claude from his own emotions and left him broken and alone.

Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.