The Hit (1984), Dir. Stephen Frears, Criterion
Terence Stamp provides his singular, incomparable combo of beatific calm and smarmy menace. He’s a former London gangster, a snitch in hiding: the hero. John Hurt, in his prime, radiates the world-weariness that became his trademark and suits his character, a hit-man stripped him of any illusions about heroes. Hurt kills people, but he radiates an integrity of purpose that Stamp lacks. So Hurt’s not exactly the villain. Accompanying Hurt, making his big-screen debut, is an impossibly young-looking Tim Roth as a hit-man in training. David Mamet wrote, or at least claimed a great line about poker: “If you look around the table and don’t see the sucker, it’s you.” That’s Roth.
Roth and Hurt kidnap Stamp from his hideaway in Spain, and set off for France, where Stamp’s final meeting with the mob boss he informed on awaits. Stamp claims to be unconcerned. His recent forays into mediation have convinced him he has nothing to fear from death. Roth, wisely, regards Stamp as “barmy.” Hurt, like the Reaper himself, simply waits. When the big moment comes, he tells Stamp “We’ll see.”
Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) also makes his big-screen debut. His sense of freedom from the confines of television is palpable. Given that his later work—especially The Queen—looks increasingly like a return to the TV-movie frames of his youth, it’s a shock to discover what a natural cinematician Frears could be. He revels in the enormous Spanish sky and endless bleak horizons (that so entranced Antonioni in The Passenger). Frears gets all Leone on The Hit, and to good purpose, blasting enormous in-the-car close-ups as cutaways from shots of the tiny vehicle barely seeming to move on dusty Spanish two-lanes. The actors savor the weird bonds that develop between three men (and a lady hostage, of course) when one has been told when he’s going to die and another told he’ll do the killing. But nothing goes perfectly on any roadtrip, and Hurt trips over one infuriating obstacle after another. He proves a surprising object of empathy; it’s not like you root for him to ice Stamp, but Hurt’s barely-audible sighs of frustration ring a familiar note with anyone who has a simple errand to perform and finds the universe thwarting him as perversely as possible. The Hit, like Layer Cake twenty years later, brings brains to violence and never panders. It’s not one minute longer than it should be, suffers not an atom of sentimentality, and shows in detail how truly punished one good deed can be. For years The Hit’s been available on a shite DVD; among the revelations of this release is how beautiful the film is. The beauty—of the Spanish countryside and Madrid’s cityscape—only adds to the unease. Beauty brings no respite for any of these three; everything that happens they bring onto themselves. And that’s as noir as it gets.
Frears also features a tiny, easy to overlook, but moving tribute to (then recently slain) John Lennon.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.