“Death in the Afternoon”: The Hit (Stephen Frears, 1984)

An unexpectedly unconventional  British gangster film, The Hit avoids for the most part any of the usual trappings of the genre–a penchant for brutal ultraviolence, for one–opting instead to present a thoughtful, even philosophical, character study.

For one thing, anti-hero and “supergrass” (mob informer) Willie Parker (played by Terence Stamp), actually reads. For another, he attempts to live his life according to the implications and complications suggested by these books. Not only that, his books serve as plot points both major (the existential-metaphysical themes that crop up late in the film) and minor (numerous shots of his extensive library, which comes in handy as projectiles in an early scene where a gang of youths attempt to abduct him). Talk about your Power/Knowledge…

Employing a series of sinuous mobile crane shots (often combined with wide-angle lenses for some fashionable distortion), the prologue, set in the early 1970s, succinctly lays out the requisite back story: From his safe house, we follow informer Willie Parker into the courtroom, where his testimony against leading mob bosses clinches his subsequent fate. (The accused gangsters break out into an impromptu rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” a moment that nicely blends menace and mirth.)

Now the film flashes forward ten years, shifting location to a remote, desolate Spanish village. Parker is abducted and handed over to two British hit men, the somewhat stereotypically mismatched pair (John Hurt and Tim Roth in his first major film role): the experienced, hardened killer and the loose-cannon, overeager tyro. (The frame enlargement above shows Hurt’s character using a photo of Stamp in his Poor Cow [1967] role for identification, leading Frears to joke in interview that he’d done so fifteen years before Steven Soderbergh’s much-overrated The Limey [1999].)

A four-way battle of wills and wits ensues: Parker attempts to play the hit men off one another, suggesting to Braddock (Hurt) that Myron’s (Roth) inexperience makes him unreliable and then planting the notion with Myron that Braddock is losing his nerve), while a young Spanish woman (Laura del Sol), taken hostage along the way, just tries to stay alive.

As the foursome make their way toward the French border, both Braddock and Myron have occasion to inquire after Willie’s apparent lack of concern over his inevitable fate. He replies that he’s had plenty of time to ponder and claims to have eventually reached a sense of acceptance. This existential quietude comes, at least in part, from his extensive reading. An earlier scene showed him acquiring a book that, judging from its Spanish title, might well be a copy of the Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese’s diary, The Business of Living. Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950, emphasized throughout his writings man’s inherent isolation and alienation, and frequently treated the motif of betrayal. These themes, of course, are just as germane to Frears’ film.

As they near the border, Willies recounts the legend of Roland and Olivier making their suicidal stand against the Saracens at the pass of Roncevalles, which they are just then traversing. The chivalrous Roland represents a code of honor and conduct that stands in pointed contrast to the actions and activities of the British gangsters. (In actual fact, the battle fought in 778 was between Christians–Charlemagne’s retreating army and the Basque natives of the region–rather than a religious war between Christians and Muslims, as later romanticized in the 11th-century Song of Roland.)

The central scene, a terse confrontation between Braddock and Willie, takes place in a forest at night. (Later scenes provide in juxtaposition a verdant, fecund nature against the scorched and arid desert of earlier ones.) The ineluctable topic is death. Willie opines: “It’s just a moment. We’re here. Then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else… maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”

Is it all a ruse? Does Willie in fact harbor some grand scheme for liberation? Not quite. The film’s conclusion suggests that Willie has attained his hard-won resignation only by envisioning a timeline. When his death is still remote, set for a certain day, and expected to come in a certain manner, he remains calm. But when things change, he breaks down. Calm and philosophical restraint go out the window, as it were. The desperate, craven urge to live (as seen, at least, from certain, let’s say, Stoic points of view) overwhelms. Willie makes a break for it. Braddock shoots him down like an escaped animal.

In the memorable last scene, Braddock attempts to get across the border disguised as a backpacker. But Spanish police (led by Fernando Rey, stalwart of many a Buñuel film) intervene and corner Braddock in a lamp store, chasing him down amid a myriad light fixtures. (The resultant contrast between abundant light and incipient darkness, as Braddock faces his own certain demise, is a fine touch.)

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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