“I don’t make mistakes.”
From director Irving Lerner and featuring Perry Botkin’s hypnotic beating score, this character piece on a hitman predates those that would become so popular in the 1970’s and onward. Even Martin Scorsese points out in the intro included on the blu ray from Indicator that Murder By Contract had a great influence on him and that parts of Taxi Driver were inspired by Edwards and the film in general. One shouldn’t be surprised to learn that years later director Lerner would serve as the supervising film editor on Scorsese’s New York, New York in 1977.
Photographed in black and white by Lucien Ballard and running a smooth 80 minutes, Edwards, play his contract killer using a tightly wound code of conduct beginning with conditioning in his sparse one room apartment (Taxi Driver) and maintaining a slick look and expensive suit as if he’s a Reservoir Dog before the world knew just what that meant.
He’s hungry for cash with designs on owning property. A surefire way to reach his goal is to hire out to the mob as a professional killer. A barbershop hit, a hospital killing and finally eliminating the man who has brought him into the fold quickly follow.
His next assignment will take up the bulk of the film when he’s sent to L.A. to take out a witness slated to testify against the key mob figure pulling the strings and paying Edwards a cool 5K to pull the trigger. Meeting him at the airport and serving as his underlings are Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi. While they’re on hand to assist him they’re also reporting to the Mob Boss and if needed will muscle Edwards into completing the job before the looming courtroom date arrives.
As cool and methodical as Edwards appears he’s thrown a curve ball when he finds out the target is a woman played by Caprice Toriel in her one and only film appearance. That he wasn’t expecting and if he’s to finish the job he wants double the money. And so begins the drama of inner torment. She’s heavily guarded with around the clock supervision. Up to this point in his professional career as a killer Edwards has avoided firearms but this time he’ll need a high powered rifle and scope to finish the hit. He just needs to figure out how to get Miss Caprice to appear in a window or doorway.
Like the many hitmen that would follow in the movies things don’t go as planned for Edwards in the final reel.
Economically shot with plenty of location shooting works to the film’s advantage and though there are some backlit projection scenes the film is far from studio bound and was apparently shot in just seven days! Director Lerner and star Edwards would team again just one year later for the harrowing City of Fear again bringing along Lucien Ballard as the Director of Photography. You love Peckinpah films and specifically The Wild Bunch then you know Mr. Ballard. Lerner would also direct a number of Ben Casey episodes starring Edwards in his hit TV show.
While his career seemed to lean towards television in the 60’s through to the 90’s with occasional movie roles like that of Maj. Bricker in the big budget war film, The Devil’s Brigade, or the grindhouse classic, The Police Connection in 1973, Vince Edwards had a run of fine crime dramas in the 1950’s. Kubrick’s 1956 classic The Killing standing tall among them. Others aside from Murder By Contract and City of Fear include costarring along with John Cassavetes in 55’s The Night Holds Terror, playing it tough in 55’s Cell 2455 Death Row and he even appeared opposite old pros Robert Taylor and George Raft in 54’s Rogue Cop.
Back to that Scorsese intro. I love the fact that he tells of seeing the film as the lower half of a double bill when it was first released. He saw it playing with of all things, Yul Brynner’s The Journey. Long gone by the time I began frequenting movie theaters the double bill was a staple of the industry prior to the 1970’s and slowly came to a halt post 1980. As far as I can recall the only true double bill I recall seeing at the theater as a kid was a pair of Tim Conway features, They Went That a Way and That Away alongside The Million Dollar Hobo.
Playing it cold, calculated and unemotional one has to wonder just how many future hitmen of cinema might have seen Edwards as Contract’s hitman. Plotting his latest assignment I can’t help but think of the 1972 film, The Mechanic, starring Charles Bronson as a methodical slow paced Mob assassin or maybe future mobster roles played by Alain Delon, Lee Marvin or Gene Hackman. Edwards easily fits in among them in this early entry in the subgenre of gangster films.
Looking for the film? It’s available on DVD and more recently as part of the Indicator Columbia Noir Vol. 2 set. Along with the Scorsese intro there’s even a 1938 Three Stooges short, Violent Is the Word for Curly, that has a credited Lucien Ballard as the Director of Photography. Had no idea Ballard worked with the trio of comics (let alone this particular short which I consider a personal favorite) that have had me in stitches since I was a toddler. Also in that set from Indicator are five more worthy Noir titles, The Mob, Affair In Trinidad, Tight Spot, 711 Ocean Drive and Framed.
Original film poster? Guilty as charged. Picked it up maybe a decade ago.