Michael Caine once said to Bob Hoskins that there’d only been three decent British gangster films and they’d been in all three: Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. To that list I’d certainly add Stephen Frears’ metaphysical The Hit staring Caine's old mucker Terry Stamp.
To some of us locals, British crime films can be either too violent or just too American: we don’t have the guns and style of the Yanks, so why pretend otherwise? Brit-crime should be determinedly un-stylish and not directed by Guy Richie…
The Hit left a mark when I first saw it in the cinema by avoiding the enduring cliché of the genre. Yes there was violence and a dramatic situation but the film was more philosophical than psychotic.
|Braddock considers his options|
Staring a rejuvenated Terence Stamp as super-grass Willie Parker, the story follows his betrayal of his gang-mates in the early 70s. He’d sold them out because he couldn’t face going back inside, a prosaic and self-interested decision which certainly doesn’t make him look like the hero in the courtroom where his former gang mates send him off with a chorus of We’ll Meet Again.
|Willie, the Boys and a be-wigged Jim Broadbent|
But as he returns home ahead of his guard Willie is kidnapped by a group of local youths. They drag him off to remote exchange with two men: hit man Mr Braddock (John Hurt) and his apprentice, Myron (an impossibly young Tim Roth). The Brits booby-trap the gang’s payment but leave one alive… the first of a string of crucial mistakes.
Soon after the police, led by a senior officer played by the great Fernando Rey, are seen interviewing the survivor – the pursuit is on.
|Terry and Johnny|
Willie overhears a news report detailing his abduction and Braddock is persuaded to change car in a Madrid safe house. But on arriving at the flat they find one of their paymaster’s associates Harry (Bill Hunter, vulnerably venal) holed up with a young lady friend Maggie (Laura del Sol).
|John Hurt, Bill Hunter, Tim Roth and Terence Stamp|
The pace shifts as Maggie starts to have her own impact on the group dynamic. She has a fierceness and desperate need to live which contrasts with Willie’s studied acceptance: he is ready but she most definitely is not.
|Laura del Sol and John Hurt|
One such battle takes place when he takes Maggie to get some petrol… she bites a clump of skin off his hand but he holds back from killing her: “you’re a very lucky girl” he later says, heart over-ruling head.
On their return he finds Myron asleep and Willie, rather than escaping is just over the hill staring in wonder at a waterfall. Braddock and Willie have their most direct exchange in the whole film Willie playing down the fear of death: “ …it’s as natural as breathing”.
They approach the border with the police close behind… the final act is played out with stunning unpredictability.
This was Stamp’s first starring role in some time and he is superb, covering the shift from self conscious betrayal to Zen calm when life catches up with him. He’s always been great at conveying uncertain meanings in his look and here he masterfully misdirects our feelings at least some of the time…
With these two at the centre both Laura del Sol and Tim Roth excel. Del Sol’s no-holds barred ferocity acts as the counter-point to Stamp’s fatalism whilst Roth kicks off his distinguished film career in fine style as the trainee psychopath. He’s the only one who doesn’t sense the proximity of his own death…
The Hit is widely available but the one to go for is the Criterion Edition which comes complete with the usual trimmings - a commentary from Frears, Roth and Hurt, an 1988 interview with Stamp on Parkinson and a lengthy essay from Graham Fuller.