Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Hit keeps coming

The Hit (1984) is better than neo-noir. It is neo-proto-noir. Rather than going back to Double Indemnity and Out of the Past for its stylistic references, it has gone straight back to the origin of hard-boiled fiction, all the way to Hemingway. Pretty good for a bunch of lime eaters. It's not unprecedented. Harold Pinter's first full-length play The Birthday Party is like a theatrical variation on Hemingway's The Killers. The film might be said to belong to the non-existent genre of art-house gangster movies (Sexy Beast, Mona Lisa and The Long Good Friday might be other candidates.) Director Stephen Frears would go on to make The Grifters, which is the hardest boiled hard-boiled movie ever made, a movie with pure ice in its veins. Then he would make The Queen. Go figure.

The plot: Terence Stamp was an informer. John Hurt is sent to go get him. Tim Roth (in his movie debut) is the driver. They pick him up in Spain to take him to Paris. The only thing missing is for Roth to keep calling Stamp "bright boy." Most of the film is a long drive across the Spanish desert, which makes it feel like one of those American pictures where they're driving across Mexico. The mood is aided by some Eric Clapton and a whole bunch of excellent flamenco.

Why should the Brits be so good at gangster flicks? This is a society that doesn't even have much truck with firearms. (Maybe that's one reason--it's easier in Britain to just hit someone in the face rather than shoot them.) And while The Hit may seem like Tarantino-lite, what separates these mugs from Quentin's fun cartoons is that they do not posture, quote or obsess on pop culture. These are more life-and-death kind of guys, mostly death.

The thing that separates it from ordinary neo-noir is the talk. Or the lack of it. It's not attempting to comment on itself, as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Nobody waxes philosophical at great length. The movie just is. It's so confident it has Fernando Rey in a major role and he doesn't have one audible line in English. Swagger, that's what it is. Not sloppy, loudmouth swagger like John Gotti, but the confidence to just get on with business.

As Stamp says when he knows he is about to die: "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?"