1 June 2009

THE HIT (Dir. Stephen Frears, 1984, UK) - 'It's just a moment. We're here. Then we're not here...'

Terence Stamp as the London gangster 'Willy Parker' and Tim Roth as hit man 'Myron'.

Produced by renowned international art house film producer, Jeremy Thomas and directed by reliable British film maker, Stephen Frears, ‘The Hit’ is not only one of the few British gangster films to have emerged out of the 1980s, but it is a film with clear noir links, emphasising a real interest in the genre that stretches over three films; Gumshoe (1971), The Hit (1984) and most memorably The Grifters (1990). All three form somewhat of a loose crime trilogy yet unlike The Grifters which continues to be revered by many as a key neo noir film, Gumshoe and The Hit (perhaps their Britishness has something to do with the relative obscurity) have gone unappreciated by fans of Frear’s eclectic and wide body of work. Though some would argue that Stephen Frear’s isn’t much of a film maker, his presence nevertheless in British cinema has been highly instrumental in helping to invigorate the fortunes of the industry at the beginning of the 80s with the groundbreaking Hanif Kureshi written ‘My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)’. Frears continues to be reluctant about the domination of the Hollywood studios and his experiences with American film making has never been a smooth and mutually appreciative creative process. This was no better illustrated in the production difficulties and directorial challenges faced by Frears when making both ‘Accidental Hero (1992)’ with Dustin Hoffman and ‘Mary Reilly (1996)’ with Julia Roberts. Both films were Frear’s attempt at mainstream Hollywood cinema and their failure with the critics and at the box office forced a retreat back to the UK.

Ironically enough, Frear’s acceptance by the Hollywood mainstream elite as a film maker with a zeitgeist impulse was manifested in the enormous success he enjoyed with his 2006 film, ‘The Queen’. With a screenplay by the politically intuitive writer, Peter Morgan, and featuring a career defining performance from Helen Mirren, ‘The Queen’ was a glorified heritage film in which Frears awkward sympathising with the British Monarchy brought about criticisms to do with conservatism. However, Frears range as a film maker makes it slightly problematic to trace some kind of consistent linage in terms of personal political ideologies. Consider his deeply human representation of illegal immigrants living in London in ‘Dirty Pretty Things (2002)’, a film that seems to repeat the early fascination with those social groups and minorities that have been rejected and misrepresented by the anxieties of a British middle class.

John Hurt in a scene stealing performance as the reluctant and apathetic hit man 'Braddock'.

Made in 1984, ‘The Hit’ has greatly influenced another equally brilliant British gangster film, ‘Sexy Beast (2000)’, which was also produced by the prolific Jeremy Thomas. If one was to position Frears film within the catalogue of British gangster films then a number of significant film noir elements would challenge its status as a strictly genre product. Additionally, the stark, narrative style, oddball characterisation and fondness for landscapes makes Frear’s second cinematic outing an obvious art film, mixing the minimalism encountered in a Melville crime film with the brutality of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western to create something uniquely unrepresentative of genre and much more indicative of the anarchy encountered in the films of Lindsay Anderson under whom Frears trained as a film maker. British actor Terence Stamp plays Willy Parker, a sophisticated and well read gangster who decides to grass on his criminal friends so that he can make a fast getaway to the burnt out vistas of Spain. Ten years later, two hit men hired by one of the gangsters put away by Willy Parker catch up with him, assigned the difficult job of killing him. What should be a quick and easy job in the language of noir becomes a task fraught with a series of insurmountable obstacles, many of which underline the doomed nature of characters who are each trying to come to terms with the meaning of death.

Beginning as a straight forward crime film then morphing into a road movie and finally entering classic film noir territory with the downbeat ending makes 'The Hit' a tricky genre proposition. Some have even interpreted it as a contemporary western, a reading which seems altogether more plausible when considering the male bonding, questioning of moral values and the inevitable death wish that permeates what is a very linear but highly episodic narrative. The mirror image to Willy Parker's acceptance of his fate is reflected in the wonderfully oblique and sadistic turn by John Hurt as the emotionless hit man 'Braddock'. Like many of the best examples of the noir genre, his downfall is attributed to a woman. However, Maggie (Laura del Sol) is in no way the prototypical femme fatale and though she succeeds in manipulating the affections of Myron (Tim Roth), her ambiguous and unexplained gaze is unable to penetrate the coldness of Braddock. Like Willy Parker, he too comes to understand that death is not just part of an inevitability but rather an absolute certainty that leaves no man untouched.

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