Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Hit Movie Review: Stephen Frears' First Feature Film

Terence Stamp is identified by John Hurt while Tim Roth holds a gun to his face.

Stephen Frears’ first feature film, The Hit, came in 1984 after a long career in British television. It is a rough production, bearing more resemblance to low-budget TV movies and independent cinema than to the polished work that defines his career today. I saw it recently as part of the Seville European Film Festival. Rather unfortunately it was presented not on 35mm, but in some kind of video format. It looked like VHS or Laserdisc blown up for the big screen. I found this to be largely distracting for the first several scenes. Surely my overall impression of the film itself was affected by the inferiority of the images.

Terence Stamp, in a performance that seems half tongue in cheek most of the time, plays Willie Parker, a London gangster who turns squealer and goes into. Parker is established as cool and relaxed when we see him the morning of his damning testimony lying comfortably in bed, having to be roused by the police guarding him. On the witness stand he is playful with the barrister (played by a younger thinner Jim Broadbent). His statements are matter-of-fact, without concern or remorse, much like a young child unaware of the potential consequences of his admissions.

As he is led out of the court, his cronies in the docket stand up and restlessly sing, “We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when, / But I know we'll meet again some sunny day!” This is the first of many scenes that are awkwardly blocked. As the guards try to hold back the prisoners it feels less like an uncontrolled rabble and more like a high school stage production in which no one wants to get hurt. This kind of blocking occurs frequently during the course of the film’s 95 minutes.

It’s a sign of a sloppy production made on the fly with a supporting cast and crew who possibly didn’t have the experience to make a more polished movie. The rough edges of The Hit shouldn’t turn anyone off, however.

Ten years after testifying, Parker is living the life of a retired expat in the Spanish countryside. He has round the clock protection provided by the Spanish government, a library full of books, and a working knowledge of the Spanish language. But we know that song his compatriots sang to him will come back to haunt him. And it does as one day some Spanish thugs kidnap him and turn him over to two hitmen: Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth in his feature film debut). Their job is to take him across the border into France and then onto Paris, where his old boss, Mr. Corrigan, is waiting to execute him.

From there the film becomes a classic road movie with all the conflict, self-discovery, and resolution that takes place during a long car journey. They head first to Madrid to hole up in one of Corrigan’s safe houses and they are surprised to discover another gangster, Harry (Australian actor Bill Hunter), using the apartment as a hideaway for himself and his young Spanish mistress, Maggie (Laure del Sol). After Parker reveals his identity, Braddock has little choice about what to do with these two, but it becomes apparent that he may have lost a bit of his nerve.

Ultimately they take Maggie on the road with them, much to Myron’s initial chagrin, although he later begins to fancy her and doesn’t much like the idea of Braddock putting a bullet into her. Parker exploits this, among other weaknesses in Braddock and Myron, to begin driving a wedge between the two partners. Myron keeps thinking he’s got some kind of plan and we have to wonder the same, although we know that his kidnapping could not have been expected. So perhaps he’s simply toying with them until they screw up enough to allow him to escape.

All along, Parker keeps proclaiming his complete acceptance of his fate. He insists he is not afraid of death, its existence being merely an inevitable stage in life. And so the crime drama becomes a philosophical farce. Peter Prince’s screenplay has several moments that will leave you chuckling, as when Braddock is about to do away with Maggie. While she’s weeping on the ground, Parker’s consoling words consist of, “Don’t worry, this is life.”

As a director, Frears handles the melding of comedy and drama quite deftly. He doesn’t pull it off entirely here. There are moments that feel forced, unreal, or simply flat, but it’s interesting to see him developing the techniques that make dark comedy work that would later serve him so well in films such as The Grifters and High Fidelity.

Hurt gives a quiet introspective performance, only occasionally allowing some firebrand emotion to sneak through late in the film. The early effort by Roth shows the promise of the actor he would becomes, but he’s still not quite refined in this role. There’s a tough cockiness that the character, being a young untested hitman, demands that may also be a reflection of the young actor in his first major role.

For fans of Stephen Frears, or even for those of the three principal actors involved, the film is worth seeking out. Ultimately it’s a minor blip on the radar of British film, but one that set an often great director on the path to success.

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