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A British gangster turns informer and testifies against a dockful of his mates; as sentence is handed down, the crew gaze at him and burst into song -- Vera Lynn's "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..." Years later, living a placid exile in a sleepy Spanish village, the informer gets a knock on the door, and two univited guests from his homeland show up; one is a jittery soccer hooligan, the other, is, well, white-suited, sunglasses wearing, and almost silent -- the Angel of Death and his acolyte. Their job is to drive the informer several hundred miles to the French border, where he will be delivered to one of those who vowed revenge and is now free. The catch? The informer goes smilingly and willingly. He has known this day would come, and has spiritually prepared himself for it. As the three journey north, his cheerful composure and penchant for cockeny existentialist philosophizing and non-stop chatter begins to crack the facade of the killers who are transporting him; and then everything starts to go very, very wrong. The question is: Has the informer had a conversion experience, or is he a seasoned hustler who has devised a brilliant survival gambit?
Stephen Frears, not yet a hack, directed this fabulous example of BritNoir in the mid-'80's, where it was barely exhibited in the US. The sun-drenched Spanish locations are a special joy, contrasting with the increasingly grim story, and Frears builds up an admirable amount of tension, leading to explosive bursts of orchestrated violence. This film is genuinely unpredictable, thanks in large part to a literate, Pinter-esque script, the fact that the action is character-generated, and three generations of great UK actors are on hand to deliver the crowning glory of the film, its performances, I've saved the best for last:
Terence Stamp, in his return to the big screen after a lengthy absence, gives his greatest performance, better even than the much-vaunted "The Limey," as the smiling martyr. His charm and serenity un-nerve his would-be killers, and starts to un-nerve us as well;
Tim Roth, in his first feature film, as the soccer hooligan driver on his very first hit; when you see this squirrely apprentice, you know that he is the weak link, and watch how Stamp zeroes right in on him because he sees this too. Watch also how Roth delivers a head-butt as though it was a daily occurrence.
The Angel of Death -- John Hurt as the veteran assassin. He is the voluable, handsome, sun-tanned Stamp's polar opposite, he speaks monosyllabically, if at all, will not indulge his captive's fondness for philosophy, and is seemingly oblivious to all but the job at hand. He has no discernable personality, and Hurt, with his dry croak of a voice, shaded eyes, pasty white skin that seems to blanch from the Spanish sun, as though he's not used to daylight, and increasingly filthy white suit, makes him a frightening incarnation, keeping superhuman cool as a simple assignment falls apart and becomes a bloodbath. Not since Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West have I seen an actor do more with so few lines and an inexpressive visage.
Extra credit goes to Laura del Sol, veteran of Carlos Saura's flamenco musicals, as the gorgeous hostage the killers are forced to take on board in one of the film's escalating plot complications: she speaks not a word of English, but she incarnates a will to survive - and an instinctive loathing of the Hurt character - that marks her out as a Mediterranean life force, in contrast to Hurt's Northern European death-drive; just as Stamp's equanimity in the face of death begins to drive the Roth character nuts, her Magnani-like sexuality begins to take its toll on Hurt's impassive murderousness.
Anyway, if you want to see a genuine little sleeper of a movie, decked out with a great cast, you could do worse then The Hit. Criterion once again shows fabulous acumen in rescuing a great one from oblivion. A great addition to the British tradition of off-beat gangster movies, like Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and Performance.