Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Hit (1984)

One of the joys of being a film buff is discovering hidden gems. These are often movies that flew under the radar, perhaps finding moderate success, and then fading away until finding a new audience years or decades later. One such recent discovery is British director Stephen Frears' debut feature The Hit. It's not Citizen Kane, or even Easy Rider, but it's one of those films that remind me of cinema's power to surprise -- no matter how many movies you've sat through. Frears had spent over a decade working in British television before teaming up with writer Peter Prince (another TV veteran) to fashion this intelligent taut example of hardboiled crime drama.

It's a pretty straightforward genre picture, but with enough eccentricity to make it fresh and interesting. I'd describe it as an existential British gangster pic with a generous dash of Buñuel-esque surrealism thrown in. The latter coming as a result of its Spanish setting -- the Andalusian countryside, Madrid and the foothills of the Pyrenees -- and the film's numerous daffy touches. I mentioned Easy Rider because it's also very much a road movie. Instead of Harley's it's a beat-up white Mercedes that carries our antiheroes on their journey of self-discovery.

Willie Parker, played by legendary Terence Stamp, is a thief turned "supergrass" informer. After his testimony that will put away a quartet of bad guys -- including the mysterious "Mr. Corrigan" -- his partners in crime serenade him in the courtroom with Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" (we'll meet again/don't know where/don't know when/but I know we'll meet again some sunny day). Flash forward to a sunny day ten years later as Willie enjoys his new life in an obscure Spanish village. Parker's former associates have finally tracked him down. Willie doesn't seem all that surprised as he meets the two pasty-faced hit men sent from London to hustle him across the frontier to France; and then to Paris for what's assumed will be a final reckoning with Mr. Corrigan.

Mr. Braddock (played with wonderful subtlety by John Hurt) and his young associate Myron (a bugeyed Tim Roth) are swallowed up by the vast and strange landscape they find themselves in. They're more unnerved than the man that should be afraid, the man they've come to kill -- or at least deliver to his death. Stamp is just perfect as the philosophichal ex-crook (he's been doing a lot of reading in exile). Braddock and Myron have the guns, but Willie has the upper hand. His confident and serene demeanor wins over the impressionable Myron; who begins to look up to Willie and question the leadership of his boss. What does Willie know that they don't? What's he up to?

The wild card is Maggie, a curvy moll who joins the ride in Madrid after her boyfriend finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Played by flamenco dancer Laura del Sol she's the only member of the ill-fated quartet who's on home ground. Her stereotypical hot-blooded sensuality and temper prove disastrous to the controlled demeanor and best laid plans of cold fish Braddock. The cast is rounded out by veteran Fernando Rey playing the Spanish police inspector following the trail of mayhem. The film gets a huge assist as well from Eric Clapton's bluesy opening credits music and a flamenco guitar score composed and played by Paco de Lucia.

The nihilistic dénouement isn't a surprise given what we've come to expect from the genre, but it comes with a twist -- a surprising loss of nerve -- that seems to question the existential heartbeat of the story. I wouldn't place The Hit in the category of "great" films, but it's a fine example of a certain cinematic sensibility that continues to wear well long after splashier efforts have been forgotten. I just watched it again after first seeing it a couple of year ago. It was even better than I remembered.

The Hit is available on Criterion DVD.

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