blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Hit! (1973, Sidney J. Furie)

Hit! is multiple movies all at once. It’s a heist procedural, with Billy Dee Williams putting together an unlikely crew of experts to take out the Marseille heroin syndicate. It’s a rogue secret agent movie—Williams’s boss, a profoundly under-cast Norman Burton, doesn’t want him showing up the U.S. government by taking out the bad guys. It’s a muted, detached character drama; Williams is after the Marseille gang because his teenage daughter died from a heroin overdose, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to avenge her, even as it makes him a much worse person. It’s an anti-drug movie, though very careful to humanize the addict. Astoundingly problematic humanizing, but the effort is sincere. It’s anti-lesbian. There’s a little homophobia with Richard Pryor doing an impression, but there’s a lot of anti-lesbian stuff (his impression involves making fun of lesbians). One of the villains is a woman who forces herself on various unwilling but terrified young ladies. It’s exceptionally anti-French. All of the French people—except maybe the evil lesbian—are gluttonous caricatures.

And, finally, it’s a McDonald’s commercial. There’s not just McDonald’s product placement; one of the characters frequently laments the lack of good Mickey D’s in France.

As a heist procedural, Hit!’s exceptional. Director Furie has this great device to show where Williams is going (he’s got to travel the continental United States to put together his team), always showing a license plate in the establishing shot. The first seventy or eighty minutes is Williams putting the team together. In addition to Pryor—an underwater demolitions expert whose (way too young) wife was murdered by a junkie—there are another six team members. It ought to be seven more team members, but Hit! wants all the heist details to be surprises, so we never find out how Williams adjusts when fate changes his plans.

There’s sniper, Renaissance man, racist, and drug smuggler Paul Hampton. Hit! takes full advantage of the Vietnam War allowing for various demographics to have the types of skills Williams needs. Hampton and Pryor are both Vietnam veterans, though there’s no bonding between those two. Hampton does appear to bond with San Francisco tough cop Warren J. Kemmerling, the surveillance man. Gwen Welles is an Ivy League French club superstar turned working girl and—more importantly—functioning heroin addict, which Williams leverages for her participation. Everyone else has a relevant heist skill; Welles apparently is just a fetching young woman who speaks French. She falls for Williams, who’s got no time for love (much less with a heroin addict).

Lastly, there’s older adult couple Janet Brandt and Sid Melton. They have a very particular set of skills but have gone straight and are running a lunch counter. Their son recently died from an overdose. Hit!’s got a lot of good acting, but Brandt and Melton get to show the most heart. They’re lovable. Even though Pryor’s likable, relatable, and sometimes adorable, he’s not lovable in the same way. Welles is very sympathetic, especially as Williams tries to motivate her through cruelty, but she’s not lovable. Hampton’s always a prick. Kemmerling’s fun, albeit a piece of shit cop (the film’s careful to only show him roughing up white hippies, who are all into heroin anyway).

And then Williams. It’s a fantastic lead performance from Williams. He manages to survive all the silliness the film throws at him, which mostly involves CIA boss Burton sending goons after him. Zooey Hall and Todd Martin play the goons. They’re assholes but amusing (purposefully), while Burton’s a lukewarm dishrag. They really missed their chance on the stunt cast. But Williams also has the worst third act heist action. Heist with an asterisk; they’re all on assassination runs (the film’s not shy about a Godfather nod either). Williams gets the silliest, least dramatic one. While Argyle Nelson Jr.’s editing is sublime, cutting between subplots, even he can’t compensate for Williams’s heist focus being so inert.

Technically, the film’s phenomenal. Furie and cinematographer John A. Alonzo do gorgeous work. Everything’s exceptionally deliberate and thoughtful during the setup and training phases of the film, while the conclusion—set in Marseille—is hurried. There are occasional shades of the earlier quiet, but once the action starts, it never lets up. Until the ill-advised epilogue.

Great music from Lalo Schifrin. It occasionally seems like it’s not fitting—Schifrin’s almost always doing a score for the drama, particularly with the various members of the gang—but it always works out thanks to Furie. Furie also does an outstanding job with the actors, particularly Williams, but also Pryor, Welles, and—of course—Brandt.

Hit!’s got a rocky finish, but it’s an excellent, distinctive picture.

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