Criterion’s high-definition DVD remastering of Stephen Frears‘ The Hit (1984), available on 4.28, is worth buying for several reasons. The cincher for me is John Hurt‘s legendary portrayal of Braddock, a British assassin sent to Spain to capture and bring to Paris an ex-gangster (Terrence Stamp) who needs to pay for ratting on the London mob. It’s one of Hurt’s two or three finest performances, no question, and certainly one of the most pleasurable ever delivered in a crusty, hard-boiled vein.
Hurt wears jet-black shades for at least half the film and has very few lines, but he teems with repressed feeling in every scene. There’s never a moment when you can’t tell exactly what he’s thinking or feeling. His Braddock is half-moving, half-amusing (and sometimes hilarious) and altogether unforgettable for all the things he’s clearly afraid to speak of, much less think about. He’s a walking dead man in many respects, but Hurt lets you see and feel everything churning inside — the fears, longings, trepidations. And all with a deadpan expression and next to no facial movement.
This got me to thinking about other great hard-boiled performances. I’m not speaking of actors who play their parts with a minimum of expressiveness — hard and frosty, wearing sunglasses, smoking cigarettes, etc. Anyone can do that. I’m speaking of performances, like Hurt’s, that use that terse, tough-guy thing but make it all feel like opera.
Jean Servais asTony le St√©phanois in Jules Dassin‘s Rififi — that’s another classic of this type. Lee Marvin‘s Walker in Point Blank isn’t quite on Hurt’s level (the part isn’t written that way), but he slips in and out of a lost-and-melancholy mode. Who else? Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven?