In the first scene of The Hit, we see a criminal (Terence Stamp) turning informant on his partners. They swear vengeance in a novel way: by breaking into a chorus of “We’ll Meet Again” as Stamp is led away to freedom.
Ten years pass. Stamp is leading a new life, in a village in Spain, when he is suddenly kidnapped and thrown into a car with two hired gunmen (John Hurt, as a cool professional, and Tim Roth, as a young hothead). Clearly, his old pals have finally caught up with him; as it turns out, he’s being transported to Paris to see his former boss before being executed.
Okay, the ingredients for a good crime movie are there. But at this point The Hit—which recently premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival—takes a decidedly nontraditional turn. That’s because Stamp is a criminal-turned-existentialist. His attitude toward his impending death is just as sunny and unperturbed as the Spanish countryside through which they travel. His philosophical acceptance of fate starts to get on the nerves of the two hit men.
The tone established by British director Stephen Frears and his superb cast is a weird mix of comedy and suspense. To my mind, it works brilliantly. If Jean-Paul Sartre had adapted Hemingway’s The Killers, it might play like this.
And in fact, The Hit does resemble the 1964 version of The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, which is known today primarily as the last movie of the actor who played the villain—Ronald Reagan. In that film, the victim’s calm acceptance of death sends the hit man into a search for some kind of explanation.
But the droll, bizarre approach of The Hit is completely new. The men pick up a girl (Laura del Sol) in Madrid. When she’s alone with Hurt, he tries to shut her up by sticking his hand over her mouth, and she bites him. When the other hit man returns, he wonders if they should get some food—maybe the girl is hungry. “She’s already eaten,” Hurt says dryly—allowing himself a small, private smile.
Hurt is good as always, but the acting honors truly belong to Terence Stamp. I’m not exactly sure how Stamp has kept himself busy the last few years—he seemed to disappear into a long period of low profile during the ’70s. But his face is now lined with character, and he projects exactly the kind of unruffled calm of the man who is at peace with himself.
Director Frears, whose previous claim to fame was a quirky Albert Finney movie called Gumshoe, in 1971, has also been out of sight for years—apparently, he’s been directing extensively for British television. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another decade before these men decide to do something worthy of their talents.
First published in the Herald, March 1985
Not only did Stamp and Frears go into gear after this movie, but newcomer Tim Roth managed pretty well too. There’s something slightly dreamy about The Hit, and Terence Stamp floats along in that mood just perfectly. The moment he realizes the jig is up, and pauses in resignation to look around the countryside before he is taken, is a wonderful piece of acting, and captures the general vibe of the film very nicely. Over the years I had chances to interview Stamp and Frears, and they are both engagingly odd: Stamp very kind, ultra-sensitive, and with a sort of zen air about him, and Frears padding around barefoot in his hotel room, a director content to reside in the form of a bus driver.