Friday, November 6, 2009

THE HIT - #469

At the end of last night's episode of The Office, Michael Scott (as played by Steve Carrell) says that, in a moment of what was admittedly mild violence, he saw his life pass before his eyes. In the end, he had four kids, a hover car, and a hover house. I guess that's one benefit of being an "optimist savant" (I doubt that's a term, but there it is): what everyone else sees as a finale, you see as a beginning. The rest of us see into the past, your imminent death is not an imminent death, but a window to the future.

I didn't think about that at all while I was watching Stephen Frears' 1984 crime picture The Hit. I rolled from my Thursday night sitcoms into this British pulp without considering if there was a thread between them, because why would I? It was only when I was pondering whether there was some other way to open this review than with a cold summary that it came back to me. If Michael Scott were to be kidnapped by a pair of criminal assassins and taken on a drive out of Scranton to New York to have his brains blown out in front of David Wallace, it would likely never occur to him that he was really going to die. He would smile and chat and roll along in oblivious contentment. His is the certainty of survival.

It's quite the opposite for Willie Parker, the aging gangster played by Terence Stamp in The Hit. He knows exactly what is waiting for him: the certainty of death.

The Hit opens in the mid 1970s. Willie has turned state's evidence, selling out his partners in a couple of bank heists in trade for immunity. As he exits the courtroom, the men he doomed serenade him with "We'll Meet Again," the old standard made famous by Vera Lynn during WWII. It's a sentimental tune turned to threat.

Flash forward ten years and Willie is holed up in Spain, living a life of quiet contemplation, alone with his books, bicycling the countryside. The jig is up for Willie, however, and that day, a group of young thugs are waiting for him. They put a sack over his head, throw him into a car, and deliver him to a pair of killers who have come looking for him. One is an experienced triggerman named Braddock (John Hurt), the other a twitchy kid by the name of Myron (Tim Roth), a bleach-blonde punk on his first job. Braddock and Myron are to drive Willie up to Paris, where he can answer to the recently released crime boss he put in jail. Then he will be shot.

It was meant to be an easy grab-and-go, but the kids who nabbed Willie killed the cop who was guarding him on their way out and so now the heat is on. The police are on their trail pretty quickly, though always a few steps behind. The posse is lead by an officer played by the great Fernando Rey, whose presence is always felt despite the fact he only has a couple of lines to speak at the very end of the movie. That's star power right there, commanding the screen without saying a word.

The road trip is one of constant screw-ups. A detour to get a new car off a local hood gains the group a fourth passenger, a Spanish prostitute named Maggie (Laura del Sol). The same stop also adds another body to the pile-up, Maggie's British boyfriend, another ex-patriot crook (Bill Hunter). Each pit stop only serves to blow their cover more, the cool criminals slowly unthawing and unraveling. Myron suspects this is all Willie's doing, that the Zen master with the white hair and white clothes has a plan to get under their skin and unnerve them, and judging by the evidence, he may be right.

Willie's monastic lifestyle seems to have served him well. When we first see Willie in court, he doesn't appear to be very smart. He's slow on the uptake, and it turns out he was merely the driver for the robberies. It's a low-level position in the criminal scheme of things, but symbolically, Willie does fulfill a role as a delivery agent, shuttling the others to their fate. By the time his own fate catches up with him, he is older, wiser, better spoken, and seeming free of any cares. He lightly accepts his kidnapping, cleverly manipulating Myron for information and needling both men in stressful situations to fray their nerves and give them cause to doubt the other. He's got them both made out pretty good, and he particularly sees Myron as a weak link. This is Tim Roth's big-screen debut, and he's already a feral little weasel, particularly as displayed in an impromptu fight Myron engages in at a roadside bar. He doesn't know when to shut up or settle down.

Braddock is the opposite. He is cool and measured, and John Hurt is as cold as Roth is hot. This puts Willie in the middle as someone who is neither one nor the other. His refusal to show concern, to scream or fight or even try to escape, undermines the confidence of both men. He knows he's going to die, what does he have to be so happy about?

Well, everything really. Willie has accepted that all life is transient, that death is a move from one state to the next, and as he tells Myron, what happens on one side is pretty much the same as what happens on the other. If John Lennon, one of his personal heroes, could face the Grim Reaper, so can a nobody like him. Today, tomorrow, what's the difference? There is an almost religious serenity to how he carries himself. He looks like he is dressed to go down to the water and be baptized, a costume that I can only assume is intentional, particularly since on what could be his last evening on Earth, rather than run for it when he gets the chance, Willie instead stands by a waterfall and lets the mist cleanse him.

In the midst of this, the girl is the wild card. If being robbers is a game that boys play because they decided to never grow up, then the women are on the other side of the board where the game gets real. Unlike Willie, Maggie wants to survive, and indeed, has been making moves to ensure her survival since before these guys crossed her path. Laura del Sol is smart and feisty in the role, constantly looking for an angle out. Hers is the part of the watcher, the one who must always be looking and then react.

Stephen Frears had an extensive television career before transitioning into features with The Hit. I am sure the no-fluff approach displayed here is attributable to that background. When you're used to constrained resources, you learn to make anything count, and there is certainly nothing wasted here. The look of the film (it was shot by Mike Molloy) is cold and bare, with the action mostly taking place either in the car or in big, open spaces. The script by Peter Prince (Waterland) is extremely economical. There is nothing said in this film that doesn't advance the narrative. No stray outbursts from Myron, no extraneous speeches from Willie. Like I noted, we don't even get any instructions from the head of the police, they maintain a silent pursuit. Confidence affords an artist the luxury of never having to explain himself.

Like any road movie, The Hit isn't really about where these people are going, but how they get there. Or more accurately, how they arrive. Prince and Frears save a few surprises for the finale. When faced with the inevitable conclusion, each person reveals his or her true nature, and ultimately, the movie says something about what it means to live tough. (Spoiler: the toughest of all is the one without the penis.) Who is posturing, who has the courage of their convictions, will any of them see their future staring back at them from the barrel of a gun--these are things you have to watch the movie to find out.

1 comment:

perdido said...

Thanks for this review. I'd never heard of this movie, but I rented it and it was great! A lost classic.