Terence Stamp is Willie, a gangster’s henchman turned “supergrass” (informer) trying to live in peaceful hiding in a remote Spanish village. Sun-dappled bliss turns to nerve-racking suspense, however, when two hit men—played by a soulless John Hurt and a youthful, loose-cannon Tim Roth—come calling to bring Willie back for execution. This stylish early gem from Stephen Frears boasts terrific hard-boiled performances from a roster of England’s best actors, music by Eric Clapton and virtuoso flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía, and ravishing photography of its desolate Spanish locations—a splendid backdrop for a rather sordid story.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their DVD edition of Stephen Frears’ The Hit to Blu-ray, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from the same master as the DVD, which was made from a then-recent 2K restoration.
Though the master has generally held up well all these years later, the overall image is pretty underwhelming. Despite grain looking fine enough (if not spectacular) and the image looking generally film-like, the picture still looks fuzzy and muddy, almost video-like, in turn leading to a lack in distinct details outside of a handful of close-ups. Detail levels in the barren Spanish landscape never pop, and crisp edges are a rare occurence, all of this ultimately leading to a flat looking image, .
A lot of this probably comes down more to the source rather than the digital restoration and master themselves: a 35mm interpositive was used in lieu of a negative, and this could explain the general blandness, flatness, smudginess and muddiness of the image. The colour scheme is also limited, with lots of browns and beiges, but even the pops of other colours—like the greens found in the trees during a couple of stops on the film's central road trip—are bland and weak. Black levels are decent, but a couple of darker shots present milky blacks that eat shadow detail. At the very least, like the prior DVD edition, marks and damage are not a concern.
The bland colours could be intentional, but I think a lot of the other issues just come down to a less-than-optimal source mixed with a dated master. I thought this looked strong on DVD (mostly anyways), and though the Blu-ray improves upon that edition in all the ways one would expect, including better compression, the flaws are now more apparent.
The film’s single-channel monaural soundtrack gets a lossless PCM update, though I can’t say I detected too much of a difference. Having said that, it’s still a surprisingly robust presentation. It’s still clean and clear, dialogue being easy to hear, and the flamenco-like score still sounds great with impressive range.
Criterion ports everything over from their previous DVD edition, starting with an audio commentary featuring director Stephen Frears, writer Peter Prince, editor Mick Audsley, and actors Tim Roth and John Hurt. I was a little disappointed to see Terence Stamp was either unable or unwilling to participate for this track, but after listening to it I’m not sure where he would have been able to fit in since it’s so jam-packed with information.
Similar to earlier Criterion tracks everyone has been recorded separately, except for Frears and Prince, who have been recorded together. Frears and Prince concentrate on the script, changes that were made during shooting, and they also both reflect on changes they would make to it now. This leads Frears to talk about his growth as a director, things he’s learned over the years. Their discussions also seem to suggest a lot of the film was made-up as they went, the two basically summing it up as they “knew what to get to but not sure how to get there.”
Audsley probably gets the least amount of time and really concentrates on how he put the film together, which it sounds he did on his own (apparently Frears was still in Spain while he was editing the film together.) He also talks about his admiration of the shots and techniques present in the film.
Roth and Hurt focus more on the acting in the film, including the performances by their costars, and share a number of anecdotes from the shoot, like how Roth almost destroyed a camera and a car after he confused the gas pedal for the brake pedal. It’s a shame they weren’t recorded together as its implied they got along with each other during the shoot, even hanging out in Madrid off hours. Roth probably has the most amount of time overall on the track, and he seems to enjoy coming back to the film. This was his first actual film, as well his first time in another country, and it was obviously a huge learning experience for him, considering himself lucky to have had both Stamp and Hurt there to guide him. Hurt really expands on his character, which was even a bit of a mystery to Prince. Though I don’t want to give anything away, Hurt was perplexed by the relationship between his character and the del Sol character and both Prince and Frears didn’t have any explanation behind his actions, so Hurt had to make up a whole other angle to it that ended up really adding another layer to the character and film. Hurt, a long time fan of Luis Buñuel, also likes to point out anything in the film related to the director, whether it be Fernando Rey or the fact one scene was either shot in Buñuel’s flat or near it (he’s not entirely sure).
This track is rather jam-packed and I’m sure a lot of stuff ended up on the floor, which is unfortunate, especially since it feels like there is very little from Frears. But the track is quite informative and, most importantly, never dull. Well worth listening to.
Somewhat making up for the lack of Terence Stamp on the commentary track is a 37-minute segment from a 1988 episode of Parkinson One-to-One, where Michael Parkinson sits Stamp down for an interview. The interview unfortunately has nothing to do with The Hit, the film only being mentioned in passing to point out it was what led Oliver Stone casting him in Wall Street. The interview seems to be tied to Stamp releasing a second book called Coming Attractions and the segment does focus some time on it and an earlier autobiography by him, but in its short overall time the feature still manages to cover his vast career from Billy Budd to Wall Street. It appears the entire interview is intact other than a clip from Wall Street, which has been edited out.
Stamp is a fantastic interviewee, funny, witty, and charming, and it seems amazing he apparently shunned interviews previously. There’s talk of his upbringing and his surprise rise to fame after Billy Budd, and how he used that fame to talk to certain actresses he had his eye on, like Rita Hayworth, and there was the hope Brigitte Bardot might just give him a call. He gets into detail about how his nervousness meeting Peter Ustinov actually got him the role, and then delves into roles after that which included work with Fellini, and then he moves on to the eventual lull his career hit for 10 years. There’s talk of his return with Superman, a film he did more to work with Marlon Brando, which he found a bizarre experience (he can’t seem to get over the fact Marlon didn’t really bother to remember his lines.) He also talks about having Michael Caine as a sort of mentor after Caine took a shine to him because he was a “real east ender.”
It’s an absolutely fantastic interview and its only real issue as a supplement on this set is it has nothing to do with The Hit. Still, anyone who admires Stamp’s work will find it quite excellent.
Closing off the disc features is a theatrical trailer presented in 1.33:1, which gives away a bit of the film.
Criterion replaces the DVD's booklet with an insert, still featuring Graham Fuller's essay on the film. Graham offers a decent analysis for this existential, road-trip/gangster film, and does make comparisons with other films of the genre that share similarities, such as Sexy Beast.
And that’s unfortunately it. I’m sure there’s more material out there that could have been included, like deleted scenes at least, but I’ll definitely take quality over quantity with a DVD release and the quality of the supplements found on here are excellent. Only a couple of items, but they were worth my time.
It's still a nice little edition for the film, but the A/V upgrade is minimal.