Saturday, 26 January 2013

Mob mortality… The Hit (1984)

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
It touches on the deepest and most everyday fears of all, that of our own mortality and the time when death turns from distant possibility to rapidly approaching certainty (we kid ourselves otherwise…). To this end, the situation is almost secondary… all of the characters are living in mortal fear,  but just a little more focused than normal.

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
We re-join Willie a decade later living a life of nervy solitude, hiding away in southern Spain with a constant bodyguard courtesy of the local police. Willie has found a new erudition with his apartment artfully decorated and the walls lined with books on philosophy and art.

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 overcomes his initial shock and appears supernaturally calm with his new captors… This is especially disconcerting for Myron: he only expects fear.  Willie continues an open commentary on his situation as if he’s almost on the same side as the assassins and he succeeds in unnerving even the experienced and intelligent Braddock. They are to smuggle him to Paris where he is to meet the gang’s leader (70’s pop singer Lenny Peters in a forceful yet wordless cameo) before the end: this is revenge served cold.

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
Harry’s heard too much – Willie makes certain of that - but Braddock gives him a chance by taking Maggie as insurance. As they’re about to leave Willie puts a seed of doubt in his mind and Braddock returns to find Harry phoning the police… the reward was too big a temptation.

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
Willie continues to amaze Myron with his sang froid and skilfully drives a wedge between the young man and Braddock. At the same time Myron can’t help but let his attraction for the Spanish firebrand over-rule calculating self preservation. Braddock seemingly has no such conflict but his suppressed desire is evidenced in a number of physical confrontations with the girl.

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…

Terence Stamp
He’s matched by John Hurt who plays against type carrying an air of martial competency you wouldn’t expect, with utter conviction. I was reminded of Ben Kinsgley in that other decent Brit crime caper Sexy Beast… also produced by Jeremy Thomas The Hit’s producer.

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…

John Hurt
The Hit is not a film you can just walk away from and each viewing  always reveals new shades of meaning. Very few British films matched Frear’s output in the 80s and he perhaps doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for bringing a uniquely British sensibility to thrillers, from Gumshoe to The Hit and onto Dirty Pretty Things. His next film was to be My Beautiful Laundrette.

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.


  1. A forgotten gem. Discovered this during a trawl through the British gangster archives, and I'm amazed it hasn't had greater acclaim.

    Though it starts out as a gangster film, it also has elements of other genres - part thriller, part chase, part road-trip.

    I also loved the way Frears used the parched Spanish landscape as a backdrop, which almost gave it the feel of a western at times.

    1. I agree about the backdrop - it gives the film an unique atmosphere - and how quickly it changes as the story gets darker: nowhere to hide.

      Stamp and Hurt are amazing too. A haunting film in many ways.