Criterion Commentaries – “The Hit”

24 May
2011

What if there was a Tarantinoesque film made before Quentin Tarantino burst on the scene with Reservoir Dogs? Specifically: a film where the killers are amusing, ostentatiously violent, and converse about existential concerns; a cast that features a character actor at the top of his game, another actor making a comeback, and Tim Roth. Stephen Frears directed that film, 1984’s The Hit.

In it, John Hurt plays the restrained hit man Braddock, who must transport Willie Parker (Terrence Stamp) – the gangster first gone supergrass and then on the lam – back to Paris where he’s to be executed for being a snitch. Roth makes his film debut as Myron, Braddock’s assistant on his first assignment. Much like Tarrantino’s films, The Hit also has a memorable soundtrack with Eric Clapton’s guitar solo, and Paco de Lucía’s flamenco numbers.

As with music, timing is everything, and as The Hit was before it’s time, critics and audiences failed to embrace the genre-bending film. Not surprisingly, the film remains relatively obscure. On Flickchart the film currently ranks around 4000 globally; 214th amongst all releases from The Criterion Collection.

What makes The Hit worth adding to your Flickchart? For starters, the film subverts numerous genres: the gangster film, the western, the road movie, and film noir. As film commentator Graham Fuller writes in his essay Road to Nowhere, Frears reworks the principles of these classifications “by eschewing car chases, gunfights, and sex, by blurring the traditional roles of captive and captor, by poeticizing a story that germinates in baseness, and by focusing on a hero who finally lets down the audience.”

Violence and action usually dominate such films, but what differentiates The Hit is how the real conflict stems from a battle of wills. As Fuller elaborates, “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.”

To that end, the real story arc in the film is not that Braddock is herding Willie to his death; it’s Braddock’s struggle to understand Willie’s serene composure in light of this death sentence. Hurt’s performance – specifically his quiet, distressed looks amidst the anarchy surrounding him – is masterful. Nothing goes as planned, and as the “accidents” start mounting, Willie disdainfully shares his assessment with Myron that Braddock is slipping.

Stamp’s performance is equally adept as both Braddock and the audience are unable to pinpoint to what extent Willie’s outlook is on the level. After ten years of living on borrowed time, is he genuinely ready for the next phase after life? Or is it all an elaborate ruse to unnerve his would-be killers and create some leverage in the hunted-hunter relationship?

It’s not until the end of The Hit that we get all of the facts and are able to draw our own conclusions. As Fuller reasons, “Willie’s last words and movements in the film are shocking in what they reveal about him. Even so, it’s not his sincerity we doubt, but his insincerity, because his prompting of compassion in Braddock leads to a kind of redemption for both.”

While critics and audiences may not have been ready for The Hit during its theatrical release, ironically more recent films by Tarantino and the Coen brothers have since paved the way for Stephen Frears’ film to find an audience. The only real drama left is where The Hit lands on your Flickchart.

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