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The Hit - (1984) - Frears - 98 minutes

The road to Paris

The film is a road trip where most of the story elements seem to have been erased then left outside to be bleached in the sun and forgotten. One of the characters is a professional hitman and at times it seems as if the film is deliberately channeling his mania to never leave a whisper of evidence behind.

The film immediately stands that perennial crime film cliché on its head: the last great score before retiring to the tropical island and the inevitable cockup that ensues. An armed gang assembles at dawn for a major crime later that afternoon which turns out to be not a bank robbery but a perjury. William “The Grass” Parker’s other gang has become such a menace to society that the authorities have decided to deal them away and end their reign of terror. There is a bit of clumsiness in William’s theatrical debut; he has to be led through the entire script with regular prompts to hit all the talking points. A pension for life; a rent free villa in the south of Spain; free visits home, his testimony is the capper to a successful career and a final job that is worth all the risks.

There is a kind theatricality in Terence Stamp’s characterization of William as a classic wheelman; quick eyes; quick reflexes but painfully unaware of the great dangers lurking just around the bend. As he exits the courtroom he’s stunned to realize he has also been assigned the role of the evil villain in multiple other plays. Out of anxiety at first then with growing intellectual curiosity, William began to fill bookcases in his dream house, although after ten years of going to bed early, he can’t help being excited when all the fury and drama of the old days returns.

One element in the film that has been suppressed is the comedy. William gets his first look at his executioners when the potato sack is ripped from his head and this delightful loon is staring back at him. But one immediately clueless, he thinks sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays---they protect your identity. Myron would be great fun to hang out with and kill an evening or two, if you didn’t mind being chased by an angry mob with pitchforks or being arrested from time to time. He can’t appear in public without drawing attention to himself at best, or at worse having dozens of people phoning in his physical description to the police. As a career criminal he has almost no life expectancy. Over the film, Braddock develops Myron as his alibi and the very public face to the whole operation; in the gas station scene, this was Myron just being Myron.

Another hidden comedic element is they drop a trail of bodies everywhere they go; they are drawing a straight red line due north across the map of Spain that is leaving no mystery whatsoever to the final destination.

Apart from the muscular rock riff that opens the film; Paco de Lucia has scored the rest of it with some fantastic flamenco music, supplying emotional codas and energetic bursts of energy, but apparently Braddock was not a of the fan. In the last sequence Paco mistakenly leaves his guitar lying around and Braddock snatches it and smashes it to pieces, avoiding the final ignominy of being strummed out of the film.

Another hidden element is Braddock’s decline*. There is a bit of irony when William tells him he is happy they didn’t send rubbish after him, you know, second stringers who would botch the job; aim for the head but shoot him in the foot. But Braddock is in the twilight of a long career, an older journeyman somewhere down the list when everyone else has either been passed or refused the job. His inattentions and tardiness has been noted. He pads his own his meager bottom line by promising easy fortune to his young associates then kills them off to save expenses. Watch when Braddock identifies William in the car then before turning to a third party at the window---he puts his sunglasses back on---removing any chance of identification from even the slightest of glimpses from this stranger. This fierce tradecraft gives him the ability to improvise at the drop of a hat. Things like the executioner’s trick of giving someone an extra day is second nature.

Braddock is intimately aware of the five stages of grief, particularly the bargaining phase, where everyone begs him for his life. So he has placed Myron in the car as a driver but more importantly as the go-between; with himself removed from these delicate negotiations, William can only chip away at the second man hoping to drive a wedge between them, but Myron in all his cluelessness will simply tell Braddock just how far the wedge has been driven at each waking moment.

Likes? The dark sunglasses link the implacable wrath of Corrigan to his stoic, chain smoking hitman. Given the setting, there is a saucy allusion of Braddock being a matador, which would explain the relationship with Maggie. The scouted hillside cairn that marks the separation between France and Spain also delineates the line between the world of the dead and that of the living. During a scene when Myron complains about all the frigging castles, William tells him they are on the highway to heaven, a route traced by the crusaders, and the various invading armies marching off to pillage and plunder. How many fearless warriors over the centuries have taken a knee at that cairn and wept bitter tears knowing they would never return home again? This predator’s point of view percolates throughout the film with the countless long shots of highways and dirt roads reduced to ribbons in the distance which suggests ant people full of fury and laughter but unaware their last song has been sung. Death usually wears a balaclava, but given the logistics of the job, Braddock dispenses with this; meaning anyone who sees his face is dead.

So what’s it about? This is essentially a character study of some people horribly trapped---how they interact with one another; their differences and glaring similarities; their self-awareness (or not) of own their tenuous vitality. Surprisingly, the home field advantage in the car doesn’t go to the hitman, but to the girl. As a young woman surviving on the cruel streets she has learnt, the most dangerous place in the world is being inside a car with a stranger; she seizes the slightest slip-up and opportunity; she is always working from pure adrenaline and instinct.

I think the eponymous hit in the film refers to when Braddock went upstairs in the high rise apartment to kill Maggie, but in the gathering of a tray of brewskies she did something magical in that kitchen, the simplest of gestures but something so luminous and tender that it melted his cold heart and he lowered his gun. Right there, he couldn’t kill that beauty; Braddock is going to have to wait for another pass. His infatuation is only suggested; when he makes the snap decision to take Maggie with them, he pulls his gun on her but aims strangely low. In the badlands outside Madrid, when he places the gun against her head for the kill shot, she reaches up to protect herself and their fingers almost touch. At the waterfall rest stop when Myron squabbles over who is going to guard whom and he pulls his gun to add a little muscle to the negotiation---Braddock simply gives him his, but takes the girl and goes off gunless: deliberately provoking Maggie’s first and last escape attempt. And their final tussle, when he collapses on top of her and almost breathes out the word love---but recovers sufficiently enough to cover his tracks with massive understatement. On the other hand, his repeated gesture of not pulling the trigger is the gift that just keeps on giving. Only at death’s door does he respond to the wink that Maggie gave him earlier in the car, but consummate professional to the end, is he teasing her with something else?

The Hit - _ _★★★

* Most of these observations come directly from John Hurt’s character notes on Braddock from the commentary track.