It’s difficult to say what qualifies a film for the “Criterion treatment.” They’ve restored a variety of films believed lost like Brute Force, produced updated versions of award-winning stories like Taste of Cherry, and they’ve produced first-run (or as close as you can get) editions like Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Whatever criteria are used remains a mystery, yet, in my opinion, I have yet to engage with a release which I didn’t find striking for one reason or another. It could be the film itself, the supplemental features (I refer to them frequently as “film school”), or the technical aspects of the release that impress. In the case of release 469, directed Stephen Frears’s The Hit (1984), it’s absolutely the film itself which captures the imagination as the crime thriller subgenre is given a philosopher’s tongue amid a road movie structure.
It’s been 10 years since Willie Parker (Terrance Stamp) turned informant, sending his boss Corrigan (Lennie Peters) and fellow criminal associates to prison. In that time, Willie’s enjoyed biking, reading, and other pursuits of a leisure-filled life in Spain. All of this comes to a stop when two hit-men, silent Braddock (John Hurt) and unsophisticated Myron (Tim Roth), collect Willie in order to deposit him at Corrigan’s feet in Paris. What should be a simple snatch-and-grab turns messy as one unexpected event results in another after another, providing time for Willie, Braddock, and Myron to really get to know one another before the executioner comes to call.
Where I can see The Hit alienating audiences is exactly why I was pulled into it, it’s not so interested in putting on airs or falsifying moments to create tension. Rather, it’s a quiet picture that entreats the audience to look past the cool-as-ice veneer Braddock puts forward and study Hurt’s physical choices. It asks the audience to note how the picture begins and ends, rolling through the events in between over in their minds as though they occurred in a circle. It implores the audience to consider that it matters not what weapons of death you carry as the true battle is waged on the battlefield of the mind. In this regard, The Hit will remind audiences less familiar with it of modern gangster tales In Bruges (2018) and The Way of the Gun (200), though those films lean more toward their violence and noir traits, whereas The Hit’s gorgeous landscapes and beautiful cast are atypical of a tale truly fatalistic. Written by frequent collaborator of Frears’s Peter Prince (Waterland), The Hit is lush and a bit romantic, bolstered by Paco de Lucia’s sweet and playful score and the driving blues rock of Eric Clapton’s opening title music, giving the film the essence of a western, where everyone has a part to play, even if they don’t realize it until the end. It’s understandable for some audiences to be adverse to The Hit as the dialogue is sparse, leaning more heavily on physical performance, staging, and production design to communicate intent or larger meaning. However, when the characters do speak, each line hits like a home run, not just because you’ve got Stamp, Hurt, and Roth in a scene together, but because these actors turn their characters into chess players, respectively gaining and losing ground with each choice they make.
Admittedly, the special features on this release are quite sparse. The included essay from film critic Graham Fuller offers wonderful perspective on the film’s initial release, it’s place in cinema, and even offers some insight into the narrative’s inspiration. For instance, in the film, Willie’s former cohorts sing a portion of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” a rather humorous moment that strangely undercuts the seriousness of Willie’s actions against them. However, as Fuller explains, this moment was taken from actual events when real criminal Bertie Smalls turned informant on his crew and they did this to him. Then there’s the 1988 interview with Terence Stamp on the television program “Parkinson One-to-One.” Over the 37-minute episode, Stamp tells a number of stories from his career which run the gamut of serious to silly. Sadly, nothing regarding The Hit is discussed. For that, you’ll have to turn on the 2009 audio commentary featuring Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince, and film editor Mick Audsley.
Regarding the audio and video from a technical perspective, the video restoration was approved by the film’s director of photography, Mike Molloy, after it was transfer to2K resolution using a 4K scanner from the 35 mm interpositive of the original camera negative. While this was done at Midnight Transfer in London, color correction and dirt/scratch removal required a combined three other processes, and adjusting flicker was handling separately as well. The final on-disc image isn’t the tightest or crispiest of restorations, but it does maintain its unique visual aesthetic which requires a bit of grittiness given the themes of the film. The audio was similarly treated to remove any distortion or audio imperfections and comes through nice and clear through my decade-old 5.1 surround sound system.
If you’re in the mood for a smart script executed by a talented cast, The Hit will absolutely scratch the itch. Given the subtly at play within the execution, I’d wager that The Hit would absolutely benefit from repeat viewings so as to catch all the little things scattered throughout which tee up the bow of an ending. Be advised that the film is nowhere near as violent as the aforementioned The Way of the Gun and is not nearly as dialogue-driven as In Bruges, but it is profoundly satisfying in its execution and conclusion. This alone makes the journey worth it.
The Hit Special Features
- Blu-ray: Restored 2K digital transfer, approved by director of photography Mike Molloy, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- DVD: High-definition digital restoration
- Audio commentary from 2009 featuring director Stephen Frears, actors John Hurt and Tim Roth, screenwriter Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley
- Interview from 1988 with actor Terence Stamp from the television show Parkinson One-to-One
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- An essay by film critic Graham Fuller
- New cover by Jason Hardy
Available on Blu-ray and DVD October 20th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official The Hit Criterion webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.