If you like Euro-crime and haven’t seen this one you’re in for a real treat. English killers are on the road in Spain, executing a hit on a ‘Supergrass’ who’s spent ten years in protective custody. The brilliant cast — Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth and Laura Del Sol give the criminal twists extra credibility. The suspenseful show is one of Stephen Frears’ best, and it builds to a highly satisfying conclusion. It’s also the feature debut of Tim Roth, and as such shouldn’t be missed.
The Criterion Collection 469
1984 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 98 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 20, 2020 / 39.95
Starring: Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura Del Sol, Fernando Rey, Bill Hunter, Jim Broadbent.
Cinematography: Mike Molloy
Film Editor: Mick Audsley
Original Music: Paco de Lucía
Written by Peter Prince
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Directed by Stephan Frears
Class-act director Stephen Frears made a number of fine Brit TV movies in the 1970s that we wish were available here. They routinely featured actors like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen that would only later become well known in America. Frears’ mainstream features range from sold hits (Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity) to shows with issues (The Hi-Lo Country, Mrs. Henderson Presents). But he has an excellent record with sophisticated crime pictures, starting with the diverting Gumshoe. His best-known here is 1990’s The Grifters, and Dirty Pretty Things (2002) is also highly recommended.
But best of all may be The Hit, a sharp-edged character study that benefits from a superb cast. Everything clicks in this story of English gangsters in Spain, starting with Peter Prince’s lean and unpretentious screenplay.
It only takes a minute to sort out the sordid situation of hoodlum Willie Parker (Terence Stamp). After ratting out his criminal associates on the witness stand, Willie has spent ten years under police protection in a small town north of Madrid. That’s when freelance hit man Braddock (John Hurt) shows up to take Willie to Paris, where the mob is waiting to repay him for his treachery. The pitiless Braddock is assisted by Myron, a street thug on his first big job, who has a bad habit of talking too much (Tim Roth of Rob Roy and Pulp Fiction). In swapping out their getaway car, the killers end up kidnapping a young Spanish bargirl, Maggie (Laura del Sol). Braddock is a fastidious detail man who thinks nothing of killing a stranger to ensure the security of the mission. Thanks to missteps made along the way, he comes realizes that they have little chance of reaching the French border. The only question is, who to kill? And when?
The Hit is a top-notch British crime film, a rewarding variant on earlier noir versions of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. Like the murder victim in the 1946 and 1964 films of that title, Willie Parker seems irrationally passive about his fate and forgoes numerous opportunities to resist or flee. This lack of concern irritates the grinning Myron, who becomes insecure when his intimidation tricks have no effect. He’s convinced that Willie’s attitude masks a clever escape plan.
The film also resembles a seedy gangster riff on the celebrated Budd Boetticher – Randolph Scott westerns. The drama in the car is a four-sided game of survival. Realizing that the foreigners intend to kill her, Maggie is frustrated when Willie just shrugs his shoulders at her suggestion of a joint escape: Willie just isn’t cut out to play the Randolph Scott role. The Spanish beauty thenceforth shifts her attention to Myron. Making a mess of his first big-league job, Myron indulges in needless mayhem, brandishing a bicycle chain and other hooligan weapons to tear up some Spaniards at a roadside beer stand. Willie undermines Myron’s sense of security by casting doubt on the competence of his boss. The inexperienced punk loses his indifferent edge, and is soon whining to Braddock that killing Maggie just isn’t fair.
At the center is John Hurt’s Braddock, a calculating mastermind who resists revealing his personal feelings. Although Braddock fully intends to fulfill his kidnap-murder assignment, it’s obvious that he’s also letting himself be affected by the personalities of his fellow traveler. He begins to commit errors of judgment. Is Braddock envious of Willie’s flight from the criminal life?
At one point Maggie bites Braddock’s hand so hard that she draws blood. The gangster clearly finds her bravado extraordinary. Does Maggie’s valorous resistance inhibit Braddock from killing her? It’s a subtle return to the noir convention of tough killers attracted to even tougher femmes fatale. Maggie is Braddock’s kind of woman.
We expect good things from Terence Stamp and John Hurt, and they deliver in full — Hurt is particularly chilling. This is Tim Roth’s first feature film, and he’s nothing short of marvelous when embodying Myron’s puffed up self-confidence. He’s so accustomed to playing the sadist, he doesn’t realize that he’s capable of other emotions. The film also introduced some American audiences to Laura Del Sol, a genuine Iberian bombshell. Fans of Spanish film had just seen her set the screen on fire in Carlos Saura’s popular ‘flamenco’ Carmen (1983). Del Sol’s character is so ‘full of life’ that even the stone-faced Braddock is moved.
Stephen Frears directs The Hit without undue stylistic flourishes, allowing us to concentrate on the interior states of his characters. Much of the movie is filmed in a moving car on the Spanish plains. Willie has spent his time in hiding reading literature. As they pass a chain of medieval castles he makes comments about Napoleon and Roland. A stop at a windmill brings up another classic association that comments on the sordid mission at hand.
The police aspect is nicely handled as well. The kidnappers’ bloody path is traced by the Spanish policía led by the iconic actor Fernando Rey. An Australian thug (Bill Hunter) is threatened on the balcony of a Madrid skyscraper, and an attendant tries to rescue Maggie when she calls for help at a gas station. Frears observes violent acts in a matter-of-fact way, a strategy that doesn’t make them any less brutal. He covers Myron’s sadistic dust-up at the beer stop in one very convincing telephoto shot. A later struggle between Maggie and Braddock is shown in a wide shot aimed straight down from a great height. The figures move like specimens on a microscope slide.
The Hit receives high marks for freshness and innovation, occasionally transcending its own genre. Nobody behaves as expected. The doomed target maintains a philosophical detachment, the hard-boiled hit men betray weakness and the helpless female is anything but. Despite the constant threat of killing, each of the characters reveals a need for meaningful human contact.
Popular actor Jim Broadbent can be briefly seen as a prosecutor questioning Willie in a courtroom prologue.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Hit
is a handsome upgrade of their previous (2009) DVD presentation. We first saw the film in so-so flat prints on Los Angeles cable’s old ‘Z’ Channel … the beautiful images on the Criterion Blu are a world away, improvement-wise.
Worth a big mention is Paco de Lucia’s stirring guitar score — with a biting title track by Eric Clapton.
The extras all come from 2009. Director Frears, actors John Hurt and Tim Roth, writer Peter Prince and editor Mick Audsley contribute to the commentary track. They seem genuinely pleased to discover how well their film has held up. Editor Audsley explains how he fashioned the opening title sequence by pulling material from later in the film. We notice that the recurring song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ appears to have been added in editorial as well — nobody is actually seen singing it on camera.
Terence Stamp makes an appearance through an amusing, revealing 1988 British television show. He reflects on his career as a golden boy of the swinging sixties who dropped out a decade later. An original trailer is included, and film critic Graham Fuller provides a perceptive insert booklet essay. Fuller notes that Willie Parker is based on a real-life informer named Bertie Smalls — the buddies he put behind bars indeed sang ‘We’ll Meet Again’ as he left the courtroom.
For fans of actor Stamp, a key bookend crime film is surely Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, from 1999.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Commentary with Stephen Frears, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Writer Peter Prince, editor Mick Audsley; 1988 Terence Stamp TV interview, trailer, booklet with essay by Graham Fuller.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 21, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson