The gangster film has long been a staple of British cinema. Brighton Rock featuring Richard Attenborough in 1947 is noted as one of the films that kick-started the trend that would give way to such highly revered films as Get Carter and The Long Good Friday and later be defined – for better or worse – by the work of Guy Ritchie. One film that you rarely hear mentioned in regard to the genre is Stephen Frears’ 1984 feature film debut, The Hit; surprising, given Frears’ high esteem thanks to films like The Queen, The Grifters and My Beautiful Laundrette.
The reason is that despite its generic title and the professions of its central characters, The Hit bears little resemblance to the gangster film in the traditional sense. It’s closer in nature to Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, a film that opens as a full-on gritty gangster film but radically shifts gears to become a psychedelic head trip about questioning self-identity. The Hit is a less complex (and less frustrating) film but it follows a similar trajectory of using gangster film qualities to philosophize about the nature of death.
The film opens with Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) ratting on his fellow teddy bear armed robbers in return for government sanctioned anonymity. After the trial, the film moves ten years into the future, where Willie is enjoying a quiet respite in Spain’s Costa del Sol. His idyllic existence is ruptured by the arrival of Mr. Braddock (John Hurt) and his hotheaded assistant Myron (a very young, very blond Tim Roth).
They’re a pair of heavies hired to transport Willie over the border into France where he’ll have to face the crime syndicate he sold out. From here, the gangster picture swiftly turns into a road movie. Not a road movie in the National Lampoon’s Vacation sense (though there are moments) but more in the vein of the existential malaise of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point; although The Hit veers more toward fatalism. Along the way the crew picks up a hostage (Laura del Sol), contemplates Spanish castles and stops to buy clean underwear.
Throughout the journey Willie displays a fey equanimity about his situation. He never runs, despite numerous opportunities, preferring to dispense Buddhist-like words of wisdom: “Death is just a stage in the journey. We’re all gonna get there.” The film builds up to a captivating final 20-minutes that reveal the preceding to be a preamble for an extended meditation on death, whether it brings finality or infinity.
Overtones are suggested throughout in the form of dialogue snippets and shot compositions, but the film only crystallizes during the moonlit woodland conversation between Willie and Braddock. That the buildup had been so disarming makes the development all the more stirring and the events that mark the final scenes pack an unexpected psychological wallop.
The DVD’s special features consist of an audio commentary track, a 30-plus minute interview with Terence Stamp and the original trailer. The commentary features Frears, screenwriter Peter Prince, editor Mick Audsley, John Hurt and Tim Roth.
The participants have been recorded separately and spliced together, resulting in a number of repeat stories. These prove mostly redundant but there are a few instances where it’s interesting to hear two sides of the same story, particularly Frears’ and Roth’s differing recollections of how Roth ended up crashing a car into the camera equipment.
The anecdotal track is one of the more informal Criterion commentaries I’ve heard, although not on the Chasing Amy level. Those looking for a probing critical analysis can turn to Graham Fuller’s “Road to Nowhere” essay in the DVD liner notes. Fuller provides some background on the film’s antecedents, both historical and filmic, and succinctly offers an explanation for the film’s poor box office: “It was a strange hybrid – a London crime drama cum Spanish road movie – possibly doomed by its dislocatedness and disregard for genre rules.”
The supplement of most worth is the interview with Terence Stamp, taken from an original broadcast of Britain’s Granada television program, Parkinson One-on-One. Shown in its entirety (complete with its “Eye-on-Springfield” styled credits), the 1988 program is a rather tangential supplement as it was filmed four years after the release of The Hit and its ostensible purpose is to promote Stamp’s role in Wall Street.
The only reference to the main feature is a passing comment about how Oliver Stone cast Stamp after seeing him in The Hit. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome addition because it offers a lengthy opportunity to experience Stamp’s charm and mystique. The enigmatic actor discusses everything from being named “the world’s most beautiful man” to working with Brando to his self-initiated ten-year repose from acting between Pasolini’s Teorema and Superman.
Stamp is a beguiling figure and this feature will make you appreciate his body of work all the more. And not necessarily just his powerhouse turns in Far From the Maddening Crowd and The Limey. Personally I can’t wait to rewatch his role as a self-help guru in Bowfinger. The inclusion of this interview reveals how much of The Hit’s legacy – and perhaps the primary cause for its Criterion reissue – is attributed to the mystique of Terence Stamp, both in his performance and his public persona.