Thursday, May 24, 2012

TV Bites: The Hit

Terence Stamp's Scotch Pancakes w/Bramble Jelly

A version of this post appears at the Criterion Collection website

This is the fourth movie I've featured that was released in 1984, which like previous multi-film posts, I have no idea why this year is rearing its head so often. And it's my second Criterion post of films from 1984. The four are: Broadway Danny Rose, Paris, Texas, Blood Simple, and now The Hit. I'll leave this to my biographers to work out someday.

I have enjoyed this movie so much over the years. It not only grows, but continues to blossom, with every viewing. It's all so very Zen.

Since I first saw The Hit, I have been convinced that it was a third version of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers. (The first two versions - are availabe in a lovely box set by Criterion, hint hint.) In the first version (starring Burt Lancaster), the killers are in and out, and the story of why the man died without a fight is left to an investigator. In the second (starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes & Ronald Reagan), the killers go on an adventure to figure out why the man they just shot didn't put up a fight. This would be the third, in which the killers explore the subject with the victim before they kill him. In researching the film for this post, I found several other folks who feel the same way. (One fellow noted: "If Jean-Paul Sartre had adapted Hemingway’s The Killers, [such a movie] might play like this."

Now, about a decade ago, a dear friend of mine in London happened to mention to me he was going to interview Stephen Frears the following day. I begged him to ask Frears the one question I'd always wanted answered - was The Hit inspired by The Killers? The next day, I got my answer. Frears told my friend "Absolutely not." But, I still don't believe it and you won't convince me otherwise. But even if it wasn't conscious, even if Frears and Prince were unaware of, nor seen either version of the The Killers, it is still in my mind a further exploration of that story.

And what can you say about Terence Stamp? He is one of those British actors, like Peter O'Toole, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, that not only lived interesting lives on screen, but off screen as well. I would love to spend an afternoon in a pub chatting with any of them. You betcha.

Also, this is part two of my breakfast double bill. Not, as I've said previously, because you should watch these films in the morning, but that I've paired them both with two breakfast dishes. Though, feel free to munch on these at any time of day.

The Hit is available for purchasing, streaming & downloading @ Amazon.


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? I was scared at first. Dead scared. I knew Corrigan would come after me one day, or send someone. I've had 10 years to get ready for this. I thought, and I read. Must've read a whole library of things. Amazing things. Amazing. In the end, the only thing that really worried me... was that he'd send some rubbish after me. And I thought, if I got somebody good - somebody who could do the job proper - then I could do my bit."

Today, Stephen Frears is considered by many to be a British national treasure. He has directed films in many genres, shifting his visual style with ease between indie art films and big budget Hollywood films (though he detests the semantic difference that exists in our minds between the two types, believing it a major contribution to the decline of cinema).

Frears was working in the theater in various capacities in the early 60's, including the Royal Court Theatre, when one day, "I met a film director and he said, ‘come and work on my film.'" That director whom Frears would assist was none other than the great Karel Reisz and the film was Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which became one of the iconic films of 60's British cinema (and which I was totally obsessed with as a youth, so it might find its way into this blog).

Frears continued working on several other films which would become classics of their time including Albert Finney's Charlie Bubbles and Lindsay Anderson's If.... He then became a director himself, working in television at first, then making his first feature film in 1971, Gumshoe. A sort of deconstructionist detective film, it predates by two years Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, both tributes to the classic hard-boiled detective, but also finding its ethos lost in our modern age. It is also notable as the first film soundtrack by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It didn't make a big splash when it was first released but has gathered fans over the years (including me). Frears returned then to making television dramas for just over decade when he ventured back into the big screen again with The Hit in 1984.

The Hit was written by Peter Prince, who had contributed several television dramas which Frears directed previously. Prince recalled, "Stephen asked me if I had any ideas and I think he was talking to Margaret Matheson, a producer, at that time and we met in a restaurant somewhere, the three of us. And I told them about a couple of things - one of which I had heard about, and the other which I had read. The thing I had heard about was the business about this supergrass, this informer, who when his informing was over the prisoners in the dock starting singing 'We'll Meet Again' and I thought that was always a good start for something. And the other that I'd read was an Ambrose Bierce short story in which a Confederate spy is captured and is due to die and he exhibits remarkable self-control, he says 'everything's going to be okay.' But it's only when at the last moment, and the time of his execution is put forward a few hours, that he breaks down completely.

"What intrigued and what I thought might be interesting to explore is whether this person was a coward all along or was it because the formality and the time period and the “doing it right” was spoiled for him that he couldn't go through with it and broke down. So I put out those two ideas."

"This was a big sort of jump for me," Frears said. "I'd made television films for the last 12 years, I guess, since I'd made Gumshoe and I was getting restless - as all the people in my generation were - and wanting to work on a sort of larger scale, and I guess really wanting to make films. We were fed up working on TV. Being treated like, you know, children. We wanted to be with grown-ups. I had read a book by Linda Myles called The Movie Brats about Spielberg and Coppola and Scorsese, and I couldn't believe they had such wonderful lives. I was so shocked that they all hung around swimming pools. And I guess I wanted to be like them."

In making The Hit, Frears himself was still learning his craft, and noted in the DVD commentary that watching it today, he could see smarter ways of building the tension (more on this in a moment.) Speaking of the art of suspense, he mused, "The truth is that all British filmmakers, you have to deal with Hitchcock, really. And a lot of these scenes seem inspired by Hitchcock. Very sort of cold and rather purposeful. And you're trying to find elegant ways frighten someone, or to kill them, or do a nasty... do whatever it is."

John Hurt recalled, "I got involved with The Hit in the same way you get involved with most films, really. It was sent to me, to see if I would read it.... and I thought it was a marvelous, sparse idea, and of course it was to be directed by Stephen Frears and I'd always admired his work." So he quickly signed on. "I had never played a character like Braddock. He was a wonderful character. This is the whole idea of playing somebody at the end of a petty criminal career, looking around for somebody to be an assistant and having to choose the Tim Roth character who is a terrorist thug, really.... He was a great character at the end of his career and it's the interaction between the two characters that makes it really interesting."

One little film geek thing you might take note of - Hurt explained the way he's smoking his cigarettes in the film was a conscious homage to Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Goddard's classic Breathless.

How Tim Roth found his way into The Hit, his first feature film, is quite the story. In 1982, Roth was performing as Cassio in Othello at a local London theater and had shaved his head bald for the part. One day he was riding his bicycle home from the theater and got a flat tire. Looking for someone with a bicycle pump, he literally stumbled into a casting session and wound up with the role as the lead skinhead in Made in Britain. His riveting performance in it wowed both audiences and critics. One of those who saw Roth in that TV movie and was considerably impressed was The Clash's guitarist Joe Strummer.

Two years later, Stephen Frears offered the role of Myron, the young gunman in The Hit to Strummer, who reluctantly had walk away from it. "There was some problem with The Clash at the time, and so he had to pull out," Roth recalled. Frears stated that it was Strummer's bandmates who wouldn't let him do it. So, according to Roth, Strummer then told Frears: "'Get that skinhead in!'" referring to Roth, whom he had never met. So Frears did and "that skinhead" got the part. "I did thank [Joe], and I got to know him later in my life," Roth said. "He's a very good man."

Roth not only had almost no acting training at the time, nor had he ever been on an airplane before, but he also didn't know how to drive a car. "I had to learn how to drive," he said, for the part. In fact, about a third of the way into the film, the trio stop to take a piss and after each take the assistant director would take over for Roth and reposition the car at its mark. After the fourth take, Stamp told Roth that he was doing such a fine job he should just back it up to the mark. But as he was doing so, he hit the gas instead of the brake, the car crashed into the camera dolly, the camera starting falling, and the car with Stamp, Hurt, and Roth went rolling down a hill. According to Roth, the other two were laughing hysterically, and all he could think about was "I almost killed both of those guys and myself...."

The film came to Terence Stamp at a most advantageous time because he was pretty much "coals and coke" (that's Cockney slang for "broke"). He wrote in Rare Stamps (one of his three autobiographies), "I would spend the morning deciding what I could sell to score the walking around money I needed for the week." Thankfully his agent called with word that Frears was interested in meeting with him and he got the part of Willie Parker, the "supergrass."

Stamp wrote about one scene about halfway through the picture that particularly stood out for him.

"There is a key sequence where Willie tries to convince Braddock, his captor, that death is only the price of having had an individuality. In other words, he accepts his fate. To this end, Willie reads Braddock a John Donne sonnet. A great sonnet is a test for any actor, and John Donne’s are considered to be among the finest. The first hurdle is that, ideally, the sonnet should be read while sustaining the intent of the piece. I had tried to recite the 14 lines in a breath but failed. In the screenplay, Willie reads the sonnet, which he carries with him. As it was the pivotal scene between Mr. Hurt and myself, I spent much time working on it in order to be as open as possible on the night, and put in many hours the night before the scene."

When the time came for his close-up of this scene, "Thoughts that were only background shadows became front and center in my mind. Willie was gone. Terence was back. The moment passed. That feeling of utter loss beginning - Silence. I take a deep breath. I wait. I feel the energy of our focused crew. I offer myself to it. My thoughts slow, becoming once more static on the surface of an awareness that extends in all directions. The dialogue wells up once more. Is spoken.

"An unfamiliar sensation — condition would be a more apt description — it is as if every word that comes out of the mouth is accommodated by a prepared space; airy fingers into a delicate made-to-measure doeskin glove. The take ends. The camera stops. The soft, pervasive space becomes, once again, the canvas on which the less subtle ambiance arises. I feel no impulse to do or say anything. Yet a few of the burly technicians come close to me. One grins. One rubs my shoulder. Camera is repositioned on John. We do his single. The first take is good. Stephen asks if he’d like another. John gives one of his lugubrious grins. 'I don’t think anyone will be watching me when Terence is in this mood,' he concludes, including me in his eye line."

Of the Spaniard roles, Fernando Rey, who has no speaking lines, is, of course, famous for his work with the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, as well as his almost non-speaking role in The French Connection. Then there's the incredibly sexy Laura del Sol, who plays Maggie. She was a flamenco dancer who had only been in one movie previously, starring in Carlos Saura's Carmen. Interestingly, she later appeared in Giuseppe Tornatore's first film Il Camorrista (who was just recently featured here in Chef du Cinema for his Cinema Paradiso!).

"I hadn't ever been that close to a girl like that in my life," Roth recalled. "She was so charming, kind of fun, but she was so intoxicating." Apparently her real life boyfriend was often on the set and didn't particularly like her dancing for the cast and crew between takes.

A little bit of trivia is that the actor playing evil Mr. Corrigan, Lennie Peters, was one half of a well-known British pop singing duo, Peters & Lee, in the early 1970's. Their big number one hit was the innocuous song "Welcome Home." And those dark glasses weren't worn to look menacing, he was, indeed, blind.

I think John Hurt summed up the film quite well: "It's a travel movie, isn't it? They go from place to place to place to place. And you don't know where they're going. The audience is led to believe they're going somewhere and they're not quite sure where they're going. Then it turns out nobody knows where they're going, really. They're just going. It's a road movie and it's a philosophical movie."

Even though today The Hit is considered a classic and one of Frears' greatest films, it, like Gumshoe, it didn't make much of a splash upon its initial release. It would be Frears' next film, originally made for television, My Beautiful Launderette, which would propel him into becoming an A-list director.

To end this on a very weird note, in the DVD commentary, Frears noted (as I mentioned above) how, if made today, he would have made some different choices in building the suspense of The Hit. At the very end of the commentary, he mused that maybe he and Prince should do an American remake. And so, it has recently been announced that Frears is at work on a remake (or reboot or whatever they call it these days) of The Hit to be set in America.

When producer Jeremy Thomas announced this news, he told Variety, "The idea is to make it as an American movie about an American gangster, to tell the story against the backdrop of the land of cinema." All I have to say is "yick" to the idea of doing a remake, and "double yick" to setting it "against the backdrop of the land of cinema," whatever or wherever the hell in god's name that is. "Yick."

Finally, let me not end without mentioning the great score by Paco de Lucia. Just saw him about a year ago in concert. Truly one of the great musicians on the planet.


The late 1960's and early 1970's in England "was a golden age for armed robbers, who were the élite of the British criminal community. Bank security was almost non-existent, and with little planning a small team of determined robbers armed with a sawn-off shotgun, a handgun, a sledgehammer and a fast car would have little trouble in cleaning up."

And Derek "Bertie" Smalls was considered to be one of the tops in that field. But eventually he was caught leaving the scene of a crime in 1972, at the age of 38. When they brought him in, he purportedly announced, "I can give you every robber in London."

Smalls spent the next two years giving up a slew of his old pals and was dubbed the first "supergrass." Charges were dropped against him and thanks to his testimony, 28 criminals were jailed. In return, he "received an unprecedented (and never to be repeated) deal giving him immunity from prosecution but life-long opprobrium among his one-time underworld brethren. The price on Smalls' head, put at £1m during the late 1970s with signatories, including the Kray twins." The contract was finally lifted when Smalls, having lived to the age of 72 died, still under police protection.

At one trial in which he gave testimony, seven defendants stood up and sang "We'll Meet Again." This incident, as noted above, became one of the inspirations for Peter Prince to write The Hit.

Just a little bit of cocktail party trivia, the name Derek Smalls may be famliar to you. It is also the name Harry Shearer uses when performing as part of Spinal Tap. And as such Hollywood stories go, according to Jethro Tull lead singer Ian Anderson, he claims Shearer got the name from a character, Derek Small, in two of his concept albums "Thick as a Brick" and "A Passion Play." Anderson called him on it once and Shearer told him the name simply "came out of his head." However, here are side-by-side comparison photos of criminal Derek "Bertie" Smalls and bassist "Derek Smalls." What do you think? Both men were known for their droopy mustaches.

Separated at birth?


"'I have a wide range of intolerances,' he admits. 'I don't eat meat or cows' milk or wheat or sugar, coffee, tea, alcohol.' So this one sentence, 'Terence Stamp is coming to dinner,' is possibly the single most terrifying thing you can say to a host or hostess anywhere on five continents."

The above comes from a 2001 interview with Stamp in The Independent (UK). While I can't speak for people on five continents, but right here in my house - if Terence Stamp wants to come over for dinner - he is mostly surely welcome any old time. After all, I have the cookbook he co-wrote with his friend Elizabeth Buxton, The Stamp Collection Cookbook, so cooking for him is no "terror" at all. Seriously Mr. Stamp, I'll cook and you can tell me stories of London in the Swingin' 60's and working with Fellini. Just give me a couple hours advanced notice to hit the supermarket.

In choosing a recipe to pair with this film, I kept trying to think what Willie Parker might make at home in his exile in Spain. At frist, I thought of making one of the book's seafood recipes - Spanish coast and all - but Stamp's written he's not really keen on eating anything that once was breathing.

And then I thought "Hmmm, what about breakfast or tea time? Willie might well long for something he wouldn't be able to find in his small Spanish town. Something which would conjured up a childhood memory, perhaps?" Or might well Terence Stamp, what with his allergies and all.

"One afternoon when having tea with Terence," wrote his Stamp Collection partner Elizabeth Buxton, "he started to reminisce about the wonderful Scotch pancakes that his mother used to make. We donned aprons and in a jiffy made up a batch of these pancakes." (And for those who think cooking is unmanly, I dare you to tell that to Terence Stamp as he dons an apron!)

And there we are. I can see Willie Parker also longing for the same exact thing. Mission accomplished.

To accompany these pancakes (also known as "drop scones" and are closely related to American-style pancakes), I turned for inspiration to his co-star, John Hurt, who wrote in an article in The Observer (UK): "For me, breakfast is berries. Blackberries, if I can get them, along with blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. I don't have anything with them but my wife pours yoghurt on top. She also has oatcakes - I prefer thin crispbread with marmalade or honey. And I have coffee, too, lots of it! I drink a whole cafetière. Strong black coffee, a mixed bean blend from Soho - the Algerian Coffee House on Old Compton Street. I buy their most popular two-beans mix."

And it just so happened that Stamp & Buxton have a recipe for Bramble Jelly – made with blackberries – in their cookbook. A perfect pairing with Scotch pancakes for breakfast or tea time.

Now you'll notice none of the recipes has sugar. As Mr. Stamp explained, "Even if I have [sugar] inadvertently, I get spots on my face and my back. And as an actor, I can't afford to do that." No spots will occur from these recipes, folks. Rest assured.

As always... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Scotch Pancakes w/Bramble Jelly
adapted from recipes by Terence Stamp & Elizabeth Buxton in The Stamp Collection Cookbook
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version of both recipes.

makes 12-16 pancakes

2 1/4 cups all-purpose wheat-free flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup soy milk (and more if needed)
1 egg
2 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 pinch of salt
1/4 cup honey or agave syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Sift flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and baking powder into large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and whisk in one cup of the soy milk. Break the egg into the batter and add the oil, salt, honey/syrup and vanilla extract. Whisk to mix thoroughly.

Let the batter sit for 5 minutes, then, as needed, gently stir in more soy milk if batter is too thick. It should have the consistency of pancake batter.

Lightly grease (with cooking oil, no butter for Mr. Stamp) a frying pan or skillet, heat and then drop large spoonfuls of the batter a few at a time onto pan. Make sure to leave room between pancakes. When bubbles appear and burst, flip and cook the other side for a minute or two until cooked. Repeat. Then serve with jelly.

Bramble Jelly
makes 1 pint-sized Mason jar

28 ounces ripe blackberries
1/2 cup apple syrup & 1/2 cup water OR 1 cup frozen apple juice concentrate, defrosted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 - 1 3/4 cups fructose (depending on your desired sweetness)

Bring the fruit, apple syrup & water (or the juice concentrate), and lemon juice to boil in a 2-1/2 to 3 quart pot and simmer gently for 30 minutes, crushing berries from time to time with a wooden spoon.

Now, place two small plates or saucers in the refrigerator to chill. These will be used later to test the jelly.

Strain the mixture into smaller pot through a fine mesh sieve or chinoise, mashing the fruit with the back of the wooden spoon.

Stir in the fructose. Return the mixture to heat and boil rapidly for about 5 minutes.

(Updated: 5/31/12) To test whether jelly has reached its gelling point, turn off heat, remove one of the plates from refrigerator, put a spoonful of mixture on plate and return to refrigerator for a couple of minutes. Now run your finger across the blob of jelly. If jelly wrinkles as you do, it’s done. If not, return to boil for another few minutes and test again with second plate. When it’s gelled, carefully pour mixture into 1-pint Mason jar. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight before using (will keep up to a month in refrigerator).

Criterion Collection Page for The Hit
The Official Terrence Stamp Site
John Hurt Interview on Diane Rehm Show
Stephen Frears Interview, by Peter Keough @ The Boston Phoenix
Bertie Small Obit @ The Independent UK

The Hit, Criterion Collection DVD
Rare Stamps: Reflections on Living, Breathing and Acting, by Terence Stamp
The Stamp Collection Cookbook, by Terence Stamp & Elizabeth Buxton

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