The Hit

Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Peter Prince
Stars: John Hurt (Braddock), Terence Stamp (Willie Parker), Tim Roth (Myron), Laura del Sol (Maggie), Bill Hunter (Harry), Fernando Rey (Senior policeman), Freddie Stuart (First Man), Ralph Brown (Second Man), A.J. Clarke (Third Man), Lennie Peters (Mr. Corrigan)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.K.
The Hit Criterion Collection DVD
The HitThe Hit marked director Stephen Frears’ return to the cinema after nearly 13 years of working in television, and it shows in the film’s simultaneous narrative intimacy and broad visual scope. From a story perspective, the film is well suited to the small screen, with its emphasis on relationships, emotional interiority, and lack of physical action, although the environment in which the story takes place begs for larger treatment. Frears’ first film, Gumshoe (1971), a parody of/homage to hard-boiled detective stories, established his ability to both evoke classic genres and also deconstruct them via well-written characters. He does this again in The Hit, which was written by Peter Prince, with whom he had worked on five television projects during the 1970s.

Shot almost entirely in the arid deserts of central Spain, The Hit details a cross-country road trip undertaken by a strange quartet, one of whom is being driven to his death. The one who is marked for the titular hit is Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), a small-time British hood who we see in the film’s opening sequence ratting on his criminal accomplices in open court (Willie’s character is based on Derek Creighton “Bertie” Smalls, a true-life character who squealed big-time in the mid-’70s). Thus marked as a “supergrass” (a London-based slang term for an informer), Willie spends the next decade hiding in a small village on the Spanish coast, reading voraciously and otherwise trying to lay low. His whereabouts are eventually discovered, and the crime boss he betrayed (who we see only briefly in the courtroom sequence and is played by Lennie Peters, a blind pop singer who reputedly ran with real-life gangsters) sends two hitmen to retrieve him and drive him to Paris. The older of the hitmen, Braddock (John Hurt), is a brooding, quiet sort, while the younger one, Myron (Tim Roth), is a hot-button rookie who seems anxious to inflict violence despite (or perhaps because of) his obvious inexperience. While Braddock is all dark, studied intensity, Myron is anxious and jittery, which is reflected visually by his flashy mirrored sunglasses and bleached hair.

Along the way they pick up Maggie (Laura del Sol), the too-young girlfriend of an Australian gangster (Bill Hunter) whose apartment they crash. Not speaking a word of English, Maggie is silent witness to the strange road trip, which inverts expectations by showing Willie to be calm, collected, and completely at peace with his imminent death while the two hitmen, who are ostensibly in control, break apart at the seams. As the trip stretches out, we start to see that Braddock is not the rigorous professional he presents himself as, while Myron turns out to have a sense of humanity that he is constantly trying to bury beneath his aggressive tough-guy demeanor. One of the film’s richest pleasures is the way Willie constantly needles his captors, poking at their weaknesses while assuring them that he does not fear death.

The Hit is a relatively small film whose ambitions lie primarily in character development, which makes the three central performances particularly crucial. Terence Stamp, who is often cast as resolute characters with a great deal of inner strength, is quite convincing as Willie, a character who could have easily come across as forced (after all, how many small-time East London hoods are so eloquent in their discussion of life and death?). John Hurt has little to say in the film, but he conveys Braddock’s intensity while also suggesting the fear and insecurity lurking just beneath the surface, while Tim Roth, in one of his earliest performances, turns Myron’s constant jabbering into a source of perilous unease (he’s like a time-bomb ready to blow). Essentially, what the three actors do best is show how their characters’ exteriors are masking something contradictory beneath. Thus, although technically a crime film, The Hit is really more of an exploration of interpersonal dynamics and the disjunction between exteriors and interiors, and while some may find it slow-going, those who see it for what it is will find it an intriguing portrait of human nature.

The Hit Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director Stephen Frears, actors John Hurt, Tim Roth, and Terence Stamp, writer Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley
  • 1988 TV interview with Terence Stamp
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film critic Graham Fuller
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 28, 2009

    Criterion’s new high-definition digital transfer, which was approved by cinematographer Mike Molloy, was taken from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored with the PFClean system at CineImage in London. Framed at 1.78:1, the image looks very good and clearly reflects a relatively low-budget, mid-1980s aesthetic. The image is slightly soft and a bit grainy, which works in its favor. Colors are inherently desaturated given the constant desert locations, but the image overall is well-detailed and pleasant to watch. The monaural soundtrack, remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic audio tracks and then digitally restored, sounds quite good, particularly Eric Clapton’s intro music and Paco de Lucia’s flamenco-laced score.
    Although priced at Criterion’s lower price-point, The Hit has a decent array of supplements, starting with an engaging and informative audio commentary that includes director Stephen Frears, actors John Hurt, Tim Roth, and Terence Stamp, writer Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley. The breadth of participants in the commentary ensures an impressive depth of information, and listening to it helped me appreciate the film’s subtle pleasures even more. The other main supplement is a 1988 interview with Stamp from the British television show Parkinson One-to-One. Also include is an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

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