A friend of my daughter’s recently admitted that she likes to watch “old” movies…like Dazed and Confused (1993). I suppose age is in the eye of the beholder; to a girl in her 20s, the early 90s would seem a long time ago. I, of course, have neckties older than that, and when I think of old movies I tend to think of the 1930s and 40s. The passage of time, as it relates to my mental diary of movies I’ve seen, has been on my mind since the Criterion Collection’s recent release of two titles I haven’t seen since they were new, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and The Hit (1984). It gives me pause to realize that they are 36 and 25 years old, respectively. Boy, does time fly. And while they made a lasting impression on me, it was still enjoyable for me to revisit them on DVD. Each one put a contemporary spin on crime stories, long before Quentin Tarantino (and later, Guy Ritchie) reinvented the genre. On his commentary track, director Peter Yates takes justifiable pride in Eddie Coyle and his effort to make it as realistic as possible. Given the showier Boston-based films of recent years (Mystic River, The Departed, Gone, Baby, Gone) it holds up extremely well, because Yates and writer-producer Paul Monash, who adapted George V. Higgins’ book, sought to make it as low-key and matter-of-fact as possible. (I just read an interview with Elmore Leonard who said that Higgins’ novel was the single greatest influence on his work.) You might think that putting a bona fide Hollywood star in this production would throw it askew, but Robert Mitchum is so good, so genuine, so seemingly effortless as the low-level hood who’s gotten in over his head that he blends in perfectly. I still find the final moments of the film a little too low-key and offhanded for my taste, but in every other way it’s an exceptional job.
The Hit is also laid-back in its approach to telling the story of an informer who, ten years after ratting out his pals, is picked up at his hideaway in Spain and “taken for a ride.” But the fact that it doesn’t come at you with guns blazing doesn’t mean the film doesn’t build and maintain tension, and curiosity as to how things are going to turn out. Terence Stamp plays the unrepentant stoolie, who’s become something of a philosopher during his decade abroad. John Hurt is the enigmatic hit man who’s come to get him, with an edgy, itchy young punk (Tim Roth, in his feature debut) as his driver. Along the road they travel they run into Aussie criminal Bill Hunter and his Spanish mistress, the voluptuous Laura Del Sol. (Also appearing in one of the film’s first scenes, distinctively heard before he is seen, is Jim Broadbent.)
Director Stephen Frears had never made a theatrical feature before, and from that day to this he has always let the material—and his actors—dictate how to get the most out of a script. It’s interesting, as always, to listen to him on the commentary track with writer Peter Prince, editor Mick Audsley, and actors John Hurt and Tim Roth. They not only reminisce about the process of making The Hit but point out things that aren’t obvious—like how well Frears managed to plot out the shooting of a film that takes place, in large part, inside the confines of a car. I don’t know that I would have sought out The Hit or The Friends of Eddie Coyle for reconsideration had Criterion not brought them back, with their always-welcome bonus features…but I’m very glad I revisited them both. I don’t suppose a quarter-of-a-century (or more) is too soon to give a movie a second look, do you?