The Hit
d. Stephen Frears (1984)
The Criterion Collection

What a potent combination: the enigmatic Terence Stamp and the well-worn John Hurt come at odds in Stephen Frears’s The Hit. I think these two actors are superb, but I had not seen this film until earlier this year in preparation for the new Criterion Collection release. I was pleasantly surprised by how this film uses these two actors to make what could be a fairly typical hitman movie into a provocative road movie, though one that still had plenty of suspense.

The film begins at a trial. Willie Parker (Stamp) has become a key witness against the criminals he once worked with. There we see him, eating up the attention, happily spilling out information about who did what. The tone is strange here, and I think it introduces Willie’s character well. On the one hand, he seems to nonchalant, to ignorant of the gravity of what he’s doing, for the prosecution, for the criminals, and for himself. Does he really not understand? Is he really this cocky? Or is this an act meant to help him cope with the terrifying situation?

After he leaves the witness stand, the criminals on trial start to sing, with building agitation, “We’ll Meet Again.”

We meet Willie a decade or so later in Spain. He seems to have a comfortable life, if a lonely one under constant protection. This is all about to end. A group of hired kidnappers manage to corner him and, perhaps feeling like his time has come, perhaps thinking he will have better opportunities to escape, Willie essentially gives himself over after a brief scuffle. This is probably wise since furthering the altercation would like leave him prematurely hurt or even killed.

Willie likely knows that these hired kidnappers are not the end of the road. His old chums are not the type to just pop him off. They want the fear to seep in. And what better tool do they have to both transport Willie across the border and to instill some sober fear than Braddock (Hurt). To make matters worse — at least, I’d think matters were worse — Braddock is accompanied by the clearly unstable Myron (played by the young Tim Roth).

But Willie doesn’t seem to mind the trip at all. Nothing Braddock throws his way — and none of the people who suffer while they drive around the Spanish countryside — causes Willie any stress. Myron cannot understand it. Naturally, he at first assumes Willie is just biding his time, using mind games to fashion an eventual escape. But he can’t seem to help feeling some kind of respect for the man who can sleep peacefully in a car taking him to his death.

Braddock has his own enigmatic streak. There’s a lot of pressure building up as he tries to get closer to his own goal of delivering Willie to the men who hired him. What is he frightened of? Does he too suspect Willie of playing games? Or does Willie’s recitation of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” cause him to fear for his own life?

It’s a film that constantly surprised me. Gussied up with an Eric Clapton score, the film is unsettling in just the way I like.

This Criterion Collection release is an upgrade from their original 2009 DVD release. It doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of supplements, but what we get is well worth the time and satisfied my yearning for more content: a packed commentary featuring Frears, Hurt, screenwriter Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley; a 1988 interview with Stamp (glad he is in the supplements here even if I’d rather have had him in the commentary with the others; this is still a great half hour with a fascinating man); an essay by Graham Fuller that hit the spot when I wanted a deeper look at the themes the film explores; and a trailer. As I said, it really surprised me and I’m glad for the opportunity to see it in a good package. It’s a great crime film, and a must for anyone who wants to see Hurt and Stamp doing some great work.

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