Before the 1980s British film renaissance was curtailed by three ruinously expensive failures—Absolute Beginners, Revolution, and The Mission—it yielded a cluster of superb smaller movies, including Letter to Brezhnev, Caravaggio, and Mona Lisa. The timeliest was My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), which married its interracial gay love story, set in South London’s Asian community, to a trenchant critique of the Thatcher era’s enterprise culture. It announced Hanif Kureishi’s screenwriting career and made a star of Daniel Day-Lewis. It was also the breakout film of the director, forty-four-year-old Stephen Frears.
Having made his feature debut with Gumshoe in 1971, Frears had been working primarily in television, directing plays and films written by the likes of Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, and Christopher Hampton, and characterized by adroit storytelling and visual economy. Though commissioned for TV, My Beautiful Laundrette was released theatrically, and it reestablished Frears as a man of the cinema. The year before, however, he had directed another audacious film, The Hit, which surprisingly bombed. It was a strange hybrid—a London crime drama cum Spanish road movie—possibly doomed by its dislocatedness and disregard for genre rules. Few reviewers of the time cottoned to the film’s blend of the cool and the lofty. Contemporary critics, in comparison, would appreciate such offspring of The Hit as Gangster No. 1, Sexy Beast, and In Bruges, and the stateside equivalents made by the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino.
The Hit was written by Peter Prince, who’d worked with Frears on four TV dramas. The nominal protagonist is Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), who, at the outset, squeals on four of his fellow robbers. Flash-forward ten years, and his tranquil life in southern Spain ends with the arrival of the gangland killer Braddock (John Hurt) and his rookie partner, Myron (Tim Roth). They abduct Willie and head for Paris, where he’ll be read his last rites by Corrigan, the leader of the men he betrayed. Corrigan makes one brief, silent appearance in The Hit, but his glower haunts it; he was played by Lennie Peters, the blind seventies pop star who reputedly knew Ronnie and Reggie Kray, notorious kingpins of the London underworld. The film was inspired by the true story of “Bertie” Smalls, an armed robber who had informed on thirty-two of his associates after striking a deal with the Director of Public Prosecutions that guaranteed his immunity. It was the first deal of its kind and made Smalls the first official “supergrass.” When he gave evidence in court in 1974, the men he informed against sardonically sang the wartime song “We’ll Meet Again,” a moment re-created in The Hit.
While on the lam, Smalls had stayed in Torremolinos. He was ahead of his time: so many British villains at large migrated to the Costa del Sol following the collapse of the extradition treaty between Spain and the U.K. in 1978 that it became known as the Costa del Crime. Frears turns this fish-out-of-water phenomenon of nouveau riche cockney gangsters seeking Shangri-la in Andalusia into a moral fable fraught with fatalism, an idea that clearly fascinated Jeremy Thomas, the film’s producer. Sixteen years later, he and director Jonathan Glazer made Sexy Beast, in which the good life enjoyed by retired safecracker Gal (Ray Winstone) on the Costa del Sol is rocked by the psychotic Logan (Ben Kingsley), sent by his boss to bring Gal to London for a heist. Sexy Beast also drew from Out of the Past; all three films channel the return of the repressed.
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A handful of films have mythicized British gangland since its sixties heyday. Michael Caine famously told Bob Hoskins, “There are three good British gangster films. I was in one [Get Carter], you were in one [The Long Good Friday], and we were both in the other [Mona Lisa].” On a different plane, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance deconstructed the genre by sending its Ronnie Kray–like protagonist (James Fox) to the Chelsea refuge of a rock star (Mick Jagger), where class and sexual boundaries evaporate. The Hit subverted it in other ways, removing its villains to another alternate mythic universe, that of the western, as Braddock and Myron ferry Willie along the roads that snake through Spain’s arid hills and plains.
The film begins with a spiky Eric Clapton solo, ushering in an ominous slow-motion shot of a man in an off-white suit walking across a summit; Paco de Lucía’s flamenco soundtrack cranks up the dread throughout. The man, Braddock, looks at the breathtaking view, but does he see it? As he stands beside a hilltop marker on a cairn—death with a cherry on top—the frame freezes. Editor Mick Audsley, a regular Frears collaborator, borrowed this ominous image from a later scene when Braddock must make a life-or-death decision. Its recurrence throws a loop around the story, bringing the characters to the point where they must confront mortality.
The intimate dialogue scenes that carry the relationship between Willie and his captors are punctuated by Braddock and Myron’s outbursts of ostentatious brutality. These leave a trail for the police, led by an appalled detective (the great Fernando Rey). Braddock’s killings are the acts of a man unnerved by his charge’s seraphic composure. For cat and mouse are reversed in The Hit. Willie continuously psychs out Braddock and Myron, as when he comments on Braddock’s failure to execute Maggie (Laura del Sol), the young Spanish woman they’ve abducted from the Madrid apartment where she lived with the craven Australian gangster Harry (Bill Hunter). “It’s supposed to be quick, clean work,” Willie goads Myron as Braddock squats on a tract of wasteland. “Look at him now. Australians, women . . .” “It was a mistake,” Myron says. “Yeah, but he’s not meant to have accidents. Perhaps he’s slipping.”
Willie shows further contempt for them when Myron, in tourist mode in the Pyrenees, asks him why Spain has so many castles. Willie’s history lesson is epic in its scope: “It’s the route of the invaders. They came through these mountains. Romans, Gauls, Napoleon. The Pass of Roncevaux. They fought the Saracens here—Roland and Oliver. Knights of old, Myron, great warriors, great chiefs, great friends. They fought together, and they died together. At Roncevaux.” But in making this dig at Braddock and Myron, who pale in comparison with Charlemagne’s legendary brothers in arms, Willie invites Myron to ask him why he betrayed his friends. By glibly replying that he couldn’t face prison again or refuse the prosecutors’ deal, he recalls the treacherous Willie seen in court, and limits the sympathy we may feel for him as a Zen villain who’s made his peace.
If Gal in Sexy Beast is unable to articulate his existential plight, manifested in an Uzi-wielding humanoid rabbit, the same isn’t true of Willie. He’s a reader and a thinker cut from a different cloth than the average East End villain—so, too, are the sensitive criminals Stamp played in 1967’s Poor Cow and 1999’s The Limey, which quotes his Poor Cow scenes. Willie’s erudition is reviled by others of his kind (and, perhaps, by those who expect a conventional crime film). When he breakfasts in a safe house prior to his court appearance, one of his minders swipes his book off the table. One of the Spanish youths who kidnap Willie for Braddock throws a knife at the M. C. Escher print in his villa; on leaving, they knock down his bookshelf.
Frears and Prince were surely influenced by sixties and seventies road movies like Roeg’s Walkabout and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and The Passenger, which used desert backdrops to highlight their characters’ alienation. In directing The Passenger, Julian Petley has written, Antonioni attempted to “transform the narrative codes within which he is working to turn them against themselves.” Frears did this—if less elliptically than Antonioni—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. In manipulating the tenets of the gangster film, the western, the road movie, and even film noir (fatalism thrives in sunshine as well as rain), Frears questions their validity. And although The Hit is full of incident, it dwells on the internal life rather than the external. 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.
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Because Frears’s story choices—embracing American, French, and Irish subjects—have been so diverse, he has come to be regarded as a gifted craftsman, dependent on writers, rather than an auteur, which is to sell him short. The Hit and his other key British films—My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dirty Pretty Things, The Deal, and The Queen—comprise an extended inquiry into the national inability to communicate, which has political as well as social ramifications. The British “are repressive, small-minded, and insular,” Frears has said. The critic David Thomson has alighted on “the various subterfuges that block candor” in Frears’s English films. In The Hit, masochistic reticence is embodied in the morose Braddock (Irish by nationality, English in character), who’s driven to distraction by Willie’s Olympian detachment and Myron’s and Harry’s nervous garrulousness. His pent-up wrath gives birth to quick, lethal strikes that make Myron seem like a soccer hooligan. His sexual repression intensifies his need to kill the concupiscent Maggie. But can he?
Whereas Antonioni used landscapes to isolate his alienated characters, in The Hit Frears uses a few square feet to indicate the kind of estrangement that can exist within any family—one made up of, say, a sullen father, his complacent brother, his tigerish second wife, and a son who’s all id. Frears is a master at probing the fissures and gorges in real and unofficial families, as in My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, The Snapper, Liam, and The Queen. The Hit’s generational split actually facilitates a rapprochement near the end. Braddock panics when he sees Myron dozing on guard duty, but he finds Willie contemplating a waterfall. Willie stands with his back to Braddock, and the latter draws his gun, but is too awed to pull the trigger. The spectral image of Willie cast against the watery haze, his hair haloed by the sun, conjures the numinous cataracts in Wordsworth’s poetry, and evokes, too, John Everett Millais’ portrait of John Ruskin. It also suggests the Ascension of Jesus, but Willie’s look doesn’t forgive Braddock, it reminds him that death—the hit—is inescapable. That night, they talk familiarly in a wood, where Braddock questions Willie’s fearlessness. “We’re here,” Willie says, “then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else. Maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?” He then quotes a John Donne poem that attempts to humble mortality. Earlier, Willie baffled Myron with another homily rationalizing death as innocuous. All this would seem like blatant sophistry, calculated to disarm his listeners, if it weren’t for Stamp’s brilliant, ambiguous performance. 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.
There can be no redemption for Frears, Thomas, and company, however, as their endgame didn’t allow for The Hit 2. It would’ve been agreeable to watch Death follow this ill-sorted foursome through rural France. “Why they got so many châteaux, then, Willie?”
Graham Fuller has written about movies for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times. He contributed essays to Criterion’s DVDs of A Canterbury Tale, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Walker.