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Killers, comedy and porky, too


April 5, 1985

The Hollywood blockbuster mentality, which decrees that a movie is either Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or nothing, has rendered the modestly scaled independent film an endangered species. And, given the cost of an evening out at the movies, casual theatregoers would just as soon stay home and rent a cassette unless they are convinced the biggest biggie in town - at one point it was Terms of Endearment, now it's Amadeus - will not only show them a good time but will impart a life-changing experience once thought to be the prerogative of religion (or drugs).

Because so few films, even the biggies, can possibly live up to their advance billing - all those "stupendous]" "magnificent]" "monumental]" quotes - audiences emerge from almost any highly touted movie that has been around more than a month or two chirping a chorus of disappointment.

In the case of tiny perfect movies that do not set out to be religious experiences, the dangers of raising expectations destined to be dashed are compounded. Three cases in point: within their self-imposed limits, The Hit, A Private Function and Blood Simple, all of which open today in Toronto, are well-nigh perfect films, but avoiding the oversell is all but impossible. The best bet is to rush to see them before anyone has a chance to tell you how terrific they are.


The Hit, a British comedy directed by Stephen Frears, must be the only gangster movie in history to owe a portion of its inspiration to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' On Death and Dying. In that volume, the doyenne of death doctors outlined the five states that the terminally ill and their loved ones are said to pass through. The Hit's screenwriter, Peter Prince, has used the stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) as the framework for an extraordinary fable in which Willie (Terence Stamp), a London gangster now living in Spain, is sought out by a couple of repulsive professional killers, Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth), to even the score - Willie turned snitch years ago and now it's time for him to pay with his life.

The catch is that Willie has already worked through his death and is ready to go. He's as resigned to his fate as a Sunday school saint, a beatific state contrasted poignantly with the desperate desire to live at all costs displayed by Maggie (Laura Del Sol), a resourceful young slut who is taken hostage during the journey.

Eventually, the film, shot on location in Spain by a director with an innate understanding of how to stylize without becoming self-conscious, asks to be seen as a comic but moving meditation on the ways we do, or do not, go gently into that good night.


The style in Blood Simple is entirely self-conscious, and good for it. This rewrite of James M. Cain by way of the grottiest splatter movie around is a triumph of artificiality in which the owner of a Texas roadhouse (Dan Hedaya) hires a reptilian private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder his adulterous wife (Frances McNormand) and her lover (John Getz).

Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and directed by Joel, the deadpan script is salty with mock Texanisms such as, "You thought he was colored; you're always assuming the worst." Meanwhile, the visuals play sophisticated games with cliches - to reveal any of them would be to spoil the surprise.

Devotees of splatter movies will be unfazed by the Gothic violence toward the end, but for people who quail at Friday the 13th movies and won't even consider Clint Eastwood, Blood Simple may prove gory going, despite the fact that the carnage is staged intentionally as baroquely unbelievable.

Over all, with its equal emphasis on mendacity, bloodletting, high style and avarice, Blood Simple suggests what might have resulted had playwright Sam Shepard been hired to write a parody of horror films for Brian De Palma.


Avarice and mendacity are the subjects of A Private Function, set in a ravaged and rationed postwar England of 1947 where a bit of bacon is capable of bestowing social status. Gilbert Chilvers (Michael Palin) is a hard-working chiropodist who is married but doesn't wear a ring - "Tiny bits of skin from people's feet tend to collect under it," he tells one of his clients cheerfully.

Gilbert's wife, Joyce (Maggie Smith), is as restless as her husband is content. Joyce, a matinee Lady Macbeth, puts on airs and has ideals. "Mrs. Rhoades' ingrown toenail has turned the corner," reports Gilbert, engaging in small talk after his day at work. "Please, Gilbert," Joyce recoils airily (as only the magnificently mannered Smith can recoil), "don't bring feet to the table."

Director Malcolm Mowbray and writer Alan Bennett (An Englishman Abroad) take their time in introducing the inhabitants of the Chilvers' Yorkshire village and in making the basic premise (an illegal pig is being fattened for "a private function") clear, but the wait is worth it, and when the pig, having become even more incontinent than usual as the result of a diet that included ginger cookies, rodents and toenail snippings, pays an extended, odiferous visit to the Chilvers' household, A Private Function becomes a public cause for comic celebration.

The image that sticks is not, however, essentially comic: it's of the tartily attired Joyce Chilvers with her dreams of "making this town sit up and take notice," telling herself wistfully, "I want a future that will live up to my past." She is speaking for herself, for her people, for her era - and for her Empire.

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