Irving who? The name may not be familiar to you but if you are a film noir fan, you might know the titles Murder by Contract (1958) and City of Fear (1959), two low-budget crime dramas, both of which star Vince Edwards. These were the third and fourth films in the filmography of Irving Lerner and the more famous of the two is Murder by Contract, which has often been championed by Martin Scorsese over the years. In recent years it has enjoyed wider exposure due to its release on DVD as well as retrospective screenings at events like the Noir City Film Festival, hosted by film noir expert Eddie Muller. Murder by Contract is a tautly directed minor masterpiece with an exceptionally chilling performance by 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.”
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 memorable for its anti-social hostility such as “The human female is descended from a monkey!”
Vince is 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, who would later cast Edwards in his 1961 drama Too Late Blues. He’s alternately cool and devious in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) as the young hot shot who’s double-crossing Elisha Cook, Jr. in a heist rip-off with Cook’s wife, Marie Windsor. And he popped up in some prestige projects too such as Carl Foreman’s war epic The Victors (1963) and William Friedkin’s 1983 satire, Deal of the Century.
Murder By Contract is told in crisp, atmospheric 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 staccato economy via the editing by Carlo Lodato), he gets a big stakes contract for a stool pigeon named Billy Williams (Caprice Toriel), a former nightclub pianist. The client, a big-time gangster boss, wants Billy silenced before testifying in a courtroom case against him. But when Claude learns Billy 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; the music score invokes roots music from Sicily or Greece. Lerner 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, the movie’s cinematographer.
There is an original approach to the framing of shots such as a floor level view of bound and gagged barbershop employees as Edwards prepares to cut the throat of an unsuspecting victim in the next room. Ballard also moves smoothly from the outdoors (Edwards and gangster clients Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi tooling around Los Angeles in a convertible) to long, static interior scenes 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 as he waits for a client’s phone call is masterful and may remind you of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and maybe even Jef Costello in Le Samourai (1967). Claude does pull-ups from a closet rod and push-ups off two chairs, prepares for bed repeatedly, and calls in food orders, laying out the measy dime tips on the card table while he parses out to each delivery boy like a machine.
I don’t want to tell you too much more about the film because you should enjoy it for yourself 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.”
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 so many 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 Joseph Strick – they co-directed the short documentary, Muscle Beach (1948) – before branching out on his own with Suicide Attack, a 1951 documentary that utilized captured Japanese footage to show WWII (especially the live combat) from the Japanese point of view. Lerner would later work with Strick again as technical advisor on the acclaimed indie film, The Savage Eye (1960).
Lerner 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 & Brownie McGhee among others. Irving also produced the big budget Western Custer of the West (1967) starring Robert Shaw as well as some spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef – Captain Apache (1971) and Bad Man’s River (1971).
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 making this up!
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. His final gig was working as supervising film editor on Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977). WTF? Maybe Lerner was the real inspiration behind Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983).
Anyway, shortly after Irving Lerner completed Murder By Contract he moved on to City of Fear (1959), another low-budget crime drama for Columbia also shot on location in Los Angeles, using several of the same people who worked on Murder. Among them were producer Leon Chooluck, cameraman Lucien Ballard, art director Jack Poplin, co-stars Kathie Browne and Steven Ritch (who also wrote the screenplay for City of Fear and played the title role in The Werewolf in 1956), and in the lead, Vince Edwards.
The film has a terrific premise. So what if Kiss Me Deadly featured a similar plot twist back in 1955? Vince Ryker, an escaped convict, is on the loose in Los Angeles with a sealed cylinder that he stole from the prison hospital thinking it was heroin. Instead, it’s a deadly form of radioactive cobalt. What the hell was that doing in the prison? Who cares? It’s the Macguffin. As the police race against time to apprehend him, Vince contaminates everyone and everything he comes into contact with along the way.
City of Fear looks great and almost works as well as Murder By Contract but lacks that film’s terse economy and offbeat stylistic flourishes. The pacing seems to be a beat and unneeded exposition (those scenes at police headquarters with Lyle Talbot of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame) sabotages the tension at times. But City is by no means a typical second feature programmer and is definitely worth seeing for Ballard’s evocative black and white cinematography of various Los Angeles locations (many of them lost to progress since then).
There’s also a terrific jazzy score by a very young Jerry Goldsmith; it was only his second film soundtrack (uncredited). Although mostly ignored during its initial release, the film was garnered much more favorable attention by contemporary movie critics such as Casey Burchby of DVD Talk who writes, “City of Fear is a great example of Cold War noir, ratcheting up the paranoia throughout, until the inevitable existential conclusion.” Nathaniel Thompson of Mondo Digital calls it “…rather potent viewing now with its theme of a city at risk from contamination, putting this in tiny company with Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets from 1950 as film noir viewing of choice during the pandemic era.”
Vince Edwards is once again perfectly cast as the lead, playing another criminal but this time he doesn’t have the pathological hang-ups about women. He also lacks the methodical cunning of Murder’s icy hit man. In fact, he’s not too bright. You’d think he notice a connection between the toxic cylinder he keeps close to him and his rapidly deteriorating health but nooooooo…he just keeps getting weaker and coughing more violently until he’s in the throes of death. City of Fear is just the sort of imperfect but engaging B-movie that Hollywood doesn’t turn out anymore but is much more entertaining than overproduced bombs like Underwater (2020) and The Rhythm Section (2020).
By the way, Lerner had directed two other crime-oriented B-features before Murder By Contract and City of Fear, which could be lost films at this point. Neither of them seems to turn up on television anymore. Man Crazy, from 1953 and co-scripted by Philip Yordan, sounds promising. Three small town girls from Minnesota make their way to Hollywood, get seduced by the city’s allure and various shady characters and wind up in jail. In a change of pace role, Neville Brand is NOT some creepy underworld thug but a former football hero turned manual laborer who advises the girls to go back home. Joseph Turkel (Blade Runner), who has starred in his share of gangster films (Portrait of a Mobster, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), is in the supporting cast.
Edge of Fury (1958), co-directed with Robert Gurney, Jr., sounds even more intriguing. A mentally unstable portrait painter (Michael Higgins) rents his beach cottage to a woman (Florence Hackett) with two attractive daughters and then becomes obsessed with them leading to a violent incident that caps the film (It’s told in flashback). There are no famous names in the cast but Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) was one of the cinematographers.
Unfortunately, the above two titles may never resurface in any format which is true for most of Lerner’s directorial efforts. Only The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), a film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about the culture clash between the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors, appears to still be available on DVD while Studs Lonigan (1960), based on James T. Farrell’s literary trilogy, needs an upgrade from its VHS status.
And what of Cry of Battle (1963), an offbeat World War II romance starring James MacArthur, Rita Moreno and Van Heflin or A Town Called Hell (1971), a spaghetti western set during the Mexican Revolution and starring Telly Savalas, Robert Shaw, Stella Stevens, Martin Landau and Fernando Rey? The latter is the last feature Lerner worked on in a directorial capacity though he received no credit – Robert Parrish claims the screen credit as director.
When so much of his work is unavailable it’s easy to see why Irving Lerner is often dismissed as a one-shot wonder whose only real contribution to cinema is Murder By Contract. Besides that film, his reputation mainly rests on Studs Lonigan which film scholar David Thomson dismisses as “a tasteful failure” and Variety called “an earnest attempt gone wrong.”
But Studs is worth a look for Haskell Wexler’s arty cinematography (lots of unusual angles and distorted perspectives), an early appearance by Jack Nicholson and good performances by impressionist/actor Frank Gorshin, Dick Foran and Helen Westcott. Even Thomson includes Irving in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, noting that Lerner (and cinematographer Lucien Ballard) “showed the potential of the genre quickie when made by accomplished technicians.” In my book though, Murder By Contract is worth more than Brett Ratner’s entire filmography and City of Fear is a worthy companion piece.
If you’re lucky, you still might be able to find copies of the DVD box set Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, which was released in November 2009 by Sony Pictures and includes Murder By Contract with four other noir favorites – The Big Heat, 5 Against the House, The Lineup and The Sniper. As for City of Fear, it is included in the DVD box set Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II (released in July 2010) along with Human Desire, The Brothers Rico, Nightfall and Pushover.
Other links of interest: