Film Recommendation of the Day 2/15: The Hit (1984)

Phenomenal British actor Michael Caine has been documented in a famous conversation with fellow actor Bob Hoskins for telling him, “There are three good British gangster films. I was in one [Get Carter-1971], you were in one [The Long Good Friday-1980], and we were both in the other [Mona Lisa- 1986].” Many of these early films re-launched the mysticism and grandeur of the British underworld and among them not mentioned by Caine was a small hybrid film of a London crime drama meets Spanish road trip western called The Hit. Before the supposed genre rule breaking by Quentin Tarantino, director Stephen Frears already broke many structural and dialogue rules in The Hit’s immensely disordered and lofty presentation. First time viewers of Stephen Frears forgotten film often marvel at its contemporary feel inevitably placing itself next to other modern day British crime films such as Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000), Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008), and Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). The characters and dialogue in The Hit have more in common with select Coen Brother’s films such as Blood Simple (1984) and Miller’s Crossing (1990) than many atrocious attempts at such “genre breaking” films as Boondock Saints (1999). Stephen Frears masterfully eliminated genre restrictions by expanding the typical mythos and setting limitations of the gangster drama through a clever use of multifaceted characters, a pseudo-western environment, and a clear focus on philosophical dialogue expression.

The Hit has at its thematic heart a return of subjugation as protagonist Willie Parker (Terrance Stamp) faces the consequences of ratting out fellow gangsters 10 years ago at the hands of a gangland assassin Braddock (John Hurt) and his rookie partner Myron (Tim Roth). The ultimate subjugation or oppression in question is that of mortality, a question and reality all of the characters must eventually face throughout the film. For Willie he tries to play a game with his mortal angels of death, a verbal chess match on the cinematic plains of Bergman (Seventh Seal) a match up that touts  Willie’s strengths of confusion, confidence, and allusion. One scene that shows Willie’s ability to try and disguise his fear of death recalls the history of the castles around Spain stating, “It’s the route of the invaders. They came through these mountains. Romans, Gauls, Napoleon. The Pass of Roncevaux. They fought the Saracens here—Roland and Oliver. Knights of old, Myron, great warriors, great chiefs, great friends. They fought together, and they died together. At Roncevaux.” Death is a door all must open and though Willie tries to undermine the power if his executioners with tactical verbiage his fate is one that can’t be undone. Of course, Willie’s continuous ability to rationalize his existential quandary only frustrates his own Roland and Oliver, his would be assassin Braddock and the questioning Myron. Critic Graham Fuller summarized the fatalism and the internal struggle of mortality in The Hit by saying, “And although The Hit is full of incident, it dwells on the internal life rather than the external. Willie’s and Braddock’s minds work overtime, and their invisible clash is more dramatic than the sporadic killings and the police pursuit. This lifts The Hit into a metaphysical realm where bullets have no reach.”

Taking the gangster film to the vast open range that is the outlands of Spain was an intriguing choice by both screenwriter Peter Prince in word and director Stephen Frears in delivery. Although the choice reminds us of other films that use landscapes to isolate the characters, such as Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), Frears offers another element with this clever environment. Throughout Frears’ career his films have focused on an inability to communicate and the consequences that fall from this separation, either with The Queen (2006) or even My Beautiful Launderette (1985). In The Hit Willie is able to overly communicate his philosophical ponderings on the trivialness of death, but his words never quite penetrate his abductors prejudice or Willie’s own fears. “We’re here,” Willie says, “then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else. Maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?” Though the dialogue is intended through character to disarm his listeners, Terrance Stamp ignites the screen with beautiful casuistry that his final actions in the face of death leave the audience with a feeling of shocked pessimism. The Hit is a film that goes wildly unnoticed though its conceptual accomplishments (philosophical approach to mortality), genre expansion (pseudo-western gangland drama), and mesmerizing performances (Stamp, Hurt, Roth, Bill Hunter, and Laura de Sol) make it a gangster film unlike any other.

One Response to “Film Recommendation of the Day 2/15: The Hit (1984)”
  1. gmam says:

    one hell of a great film would love to get this on dvd or even blue ray ,,, i have it in vhs me and my mates would watch this every time we come back smashed from the pub ,,,, this is best film og ganster

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