Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Hit (1984): Gangsters and Sunshine






I hope anyone who liked Jonathan Glazer’s great 2001 film Sexy Beast has also seen Stephen Frears’ great 1984 film The Hit. In the former Ray Winstone plays a British gangster in hiding in Spain. The calm is shattered when Ben Kingsley, as a terrifying psychopath, arrives to bring him back to London against his will. Back in 1984, however, a very similar scenario had been played out. In Frears' film, Terence Stamp is the British gangster in hiding in Spain, and the calm is shattered when two menacing hoodlums (John Hurt and Tim Roth) arrive to kidnap him and take him to Paris to be executed. And probably The Hit was an influence on more people than just Jonathan Glazer. You can imagine Tarantino watching it and recognising that Tim Roth would be perfect for Reservoir Dogs, or Steven Soderbergh seeing it and picturing Terence Stamp as The Limey.

There’s a funny scene at the start of the film, set in the early 70’s, 10 years before the main action (Stamp’s kipper tie jumps out of the screen and the policemen guarding him are so gaudily dressed they’d give Cleopatra Jones a run for her money). In court, when Stamp is asked to rat out his former criminal compatriots, he seems so blasé and helpfully polite to the prosecutor, it’s almost like he’s been smoking something. Then the scene is topped off in truly surreal fashion when the criminals, lined up in the dock, do a very menacing version of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ as Stamp is led away.  

Apart from this scene, the film looks like it was all shot at the height of the Spanish summer, and the cinematography by John A. Alonzo and Mike Molloy captures the mood very well: it’s too hot, and the environment is always misty and dusty and exhausting. One minor quibble I had: Fernando Rey plays the head of the police-team tracking the kidnapping party across Spain, following their trail of destruction and dead bodies, and he and his men have probably no more than ten words to say in the entire film. We’re shown them turning up at the scene of every violent incident, questioning people in long-shot, pointing at things, gesturing, and we hear an incomprehensible mutter on the soundtrack. It gets a bit pantomimish after a while. It’s fair enough that we concentrate on the car with Stamp in it, and not get distracted by the police scenes, but surely they could have given Rey a few lines of dialogue? (It’s as if they were scared to include even one minute of subtitled screen-time). As it is, he’s like a silent figure in a shadow-play, and he must have wondered why they’d employed him, because someone much less experienced, and presumably cheaper, could have done the exact same thing.

It’s a film that relies heavily on its plot to keep us interested, and that plot is nicely unpredictable. (It was written by Peter Prince). Right from the start, when four young Spanish punks - rather than two British gangsters - burst into Stamp’s house to kidnap him, the film wrong-foots you. There are many moments when you think someone is safe, but then they’re not, or vice-versa. The scenes in the Madrid apartment with the Australian who shouldn’t be there are very tense and amongst the best in the film. Another gripping scene is late in the film at a gas station; it’s the first time we actually get to see a shooting, and it’s brutal and cold-blooded and throws you as a viewer. You realise that you’d almost begun to think of Hurt and Roth as good guys, and started to believe this could end happily for everyone. You have to admit you were wrong.

This was Tim Roth’s debut and it’s a great one. He’s got dyed blonde hair and he’s so much younger and nastier-looking than the guy we know now from things like Lie to Me, where he’s rather cuddly by comparison. Here he’s an authentically callow thug and the scene in the rural bar where he attacks four young locals for no reason is perhaps the clearest evidence of his moronic mentality. On the other hand - and this is to the film’s credit - he’s also kind of sympathetic, mainly because he has a soft spot for Laura Del Sol’s character, who’s a beautiful Spanish girl whom they kidnap and who ends up with Hurt’s gun pointed at her temples several times (Del Sol had become famous the year before in the lead role of Carlos Saura‘s film, Carmen).

There’s a lot of talk throughout the film about accepting death, always from the mouth of Stamp, who’s portrayed as a very serene and bookish fellow. I wouldn’t make any great claims for it as philosophy: it could have done with being a bit more bookish, and maybe he could have told us what a few great writers over the centuries have said about this subject. But he does come out with one nice line about the chemical processes of life and death being basically the same, so why do we get so worked up about the shift between the two? And it does give a nice feel to his character and the film, as both Hurt and Roth are mystified that he’s so unphased by it all, that he doesn’t run away when he has the chance. He even fixes their car for them when it breaks down. It gets on their nerves, because they want him to be scared. In the end he is scared, but it’s for strange reasons; it’s not so much his own murder he objects as the timing of it. Finally, the unpredictability of the characters in this film even gets to him.






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