In Ernest Hemmingway’s short story “The Killers,” the reader is presented with a character, Ole Anderson, who knows he is to be killed by two hit men yet goes gently into that good night. The story, which was directly adapted into two American film noirs, once by Robert Siodmak (1946) and once by Don Siegel (1964), unnerves because of its existential nature: The protagonist acknowledges that it is meaningless to flee, as he will ultimately die at one time or another. How can you escape the inevitable? Why not cut to the chase and meet it head on? Siodmak’s adaptation follows an insurance investigator who essentially wants to discover the reason why Ole was killed. Siegel’s adaptation follows the hit men (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager), one of whom is startled by and becomes obsessed with his target’s resignation towards life. Essentially, Siodmak’s adaptation takes the form of a mystery while Siegel’s is an adaptation of Hemingway’s philosophical theme (both are fine films and worthy of viewing, made all the easier by Criterion’s double-bill release).
I begin the latest entry of our neo-noir retrospective with a summary of Hemingway’s story because it seems to have implicitly informed a great neo-noir, Stephen Frears’s The Hit (1984, also released on home video by Criterion). Unlike Siodmak’s film, we’re aware of the solution to the mystery of why Frears’s Ole Andreson, London gangster Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), is to be killed in the opening moments of the film. Willie, in exchange for a pardon and a comfortable retirement in Spain, has ratted out his former colleagues who, when faced with Willie’s testimony, eerily sing Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” to the backstabber. Ten years later, after spending his time basking in world literature and culture, Willie is faced with his own pair of grim reapers: Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth). Like Ole, Willie surrenders himself to his hunters, who are to drive him from Spain to Paris, where the kingpin Willie turned stoolie on is awaiting his revenge.
Complications, as usual, ensue. While staying at a safe house, Braddock is forced to kidnap a young, beautiful Spanish woman named Maggie (Laura del Sol) and to kill her boyfriend, a gangster (Bill Hunter) who might have reported Willie’s location for a generous police reward. Now with two captives in tow, Braddock and Myron continue on their long road trip to Paris. Yet, while on the road, Willie’s outlook towards his assassination begins to change. He subtly tries to manipulate Myron, the younger, more primitive hit man of the two. As Myron becomes attracted to Maggie, Willie informs him that she will not escape the road trip alive and that if Myron wishes to run off with her, he best pull the trigger on Braddock first. Despite Willie’s encouragement, the group continues to get closer and closer to Paris, forcing him to re-think his initial surrender and to take drastic actions.
What I appreciate the most about The Hit is how it continually played with my expectations. Upon my first viewing (which was no doubt informed by Hemingway’s story), I thought I was watching a film about Willie, who would ultimately die at the hands of his assassins with little change. Yet, given that the film is not a mystery, Willie needs to go through an arc in order for the plot to progress. I don’t mean for the structure that Frears and screenwriter Peter Prince have given the film to sound artificial, as Willie’s transformation is completely motivated by psychology and not by the need for a chase sequence or a gun battle. My intent is simply to find the focus of the film’s drama. This said, in my second viewing of the film, then aware of where the film ultimately ends up, I spent more time focusing on Braddock. Like Lee Marvin’s character in the Siegel adaptation, how does Willie’s decision and emotional response when faced with certain death alter his own outlook on life? Does he remain the cold, calculated murderer that we see at the beginning of the film or does he realize his own mortality?
These slight transformations in psychology are handled incredibly well by Stamp and Hurt. Stamp is initially confident in his decision, trying to bluff his murderers into confusion with his monologues on the nature of life and death. Yet, as the film progresses, Stamp begins to slip and we begin to realize just how much of those words and actions are a façade. Hurt’s character and portrayal are difficult to gauge, given that he is contemplative and silent, his eyes hidden behind large Ray Ban sunglasses. Like Stamp, however, we begin to notice subtle changes in his demeanor as the film continues, especially when faced with the rash decision-making of Roth’s unstable Myron.
The film also features a stunning musical score, largely composed by Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia with a title track performed by Roger Waters and Eric Clapton. The film’s cinematography, handled by Mike Molloy (formerly a camera operator on some of the most wonderfully shot films of all time, including Performance, Walkabout, and Barry Lyndon), captures the dull and depressing streets of London and juxtaposes them with the overexposed, barren locations of the Spanish countryside. All in all, Frears assembled a great team of personnel to re-interpret Hemingway’s story, no small feat considering its predecessors.
Frears is, in my opinion, a relatively underappreciated filmmaker on our side of the Atlantic. This is perhaps due to the diversity of his material, as a list of his most cited films exemplifies: Dangerous Liaisons (1988), High Fidelity (2000), and The Queen (2006). Essentially, he’s such a diverse filmmaker that his oeuvre lacks what might be considered a personal signature. Yet, Frears has quietly and humbly contributed a great deal to the neo-noir genre over the past decades, be it in his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1990), the immigrant drama Dirty Pretty Things (2002), or The Hit. An odd accomplishment for an Englishman, given the widely cited claim that noir is inherently American, but true and laudable all the same.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.