The Hard Way (Michael Dryhurst, 1979)
I have watched, loved, re-watched and loved again the moody British hitman telefilm THE HARD WAY for roughly 15 years now, but until I recently read a review that compared it to the moody French crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville, I had never made that connection. It’s a valid comparison (THE HARD WAY even uses longtime Melville cinematographer Henri Decae), but perhaps it never occurred to me because, for as much as I appreciate this British TV movie, I have always been left cold by the (admittedly similar) Melville films. The difference? Patrick McGoohan. The HARD WAY star is every bit as stoic and taciturn as, say, Alain Delon’s character in Melville’s LE SAMOURAI, but McGoohan brings with him the screen presence he created through other roles and that makes all the difference. The viewer is able to project intelligence and principle onto a reserved man who provides few clues about his inner workings.
But those few clues that McGoohan does offer through his performance—of world-weary assassin John Connor, who lives in a remote Irish farmhouse when not on assignment—are masterfully delivered. So much so that the film not only works as a “one last job” story but also as a character study of a solitary contract killer. Early on in the film, Connor is paid a visit by his employer, McNeal (Lee Van Cleef), and although the scene could have easily shook out like every other stock “I want to retire/I won’t let you just yet…” scene that is familiar of the subgenre, McGoohan plays his part with such intriguing minimalism that the viewer becomes, from that point on, desperate for any shred of insight into his character. For instance, during a bar scene late in the film, we finally get to see Connor in public, and we watch every little fascinating bit of behaviour, trying to see how this reclusive hitman interacts with regular society.
Other clues about Connor come from narration—both on-screen and in the voice-over—provided by his ex-wife (Edna O’Brien) throughout the film. While these scenes are more stagy and less naturalistic than the rest of the film, the information rings true (she thinks that the gentle and patient Connor could’ve just as easily been a priest as a hitman), and there’s an interesting revelation at the end as to where/when this narration is being given.
But even if the John Connor character hadn’t been so interesting, THE HARD WAY still would have avoided being a routine “one last job” crime entry. When you read between the lines, you realize our protagonist has been trying to quit for a lonnng time now, and it takes the events of this film—an assassination attempt intentionally botched by Connor—to make McNeal take his resignation seriously. And as for Van Cleef’s character, the movie resists the urge to make him the stock “one last job” baddie boss—or even entirely villainous, for that matter. After Connor botches the hit, we see a lot of scenes from McNeal’s point of view, and we see the mess/aftermath/fallout he has to clean up. It’s actually quite sympathy evoking. In fact, because Connor doesn’t successfully complete the contract, there’s even an assassination attempt on McNeal (which turns out to be a marvellous little scene, because the gunfight takes place in a cramped public washroom—even involving a bar of soap!—and is as quick as it is claustrophobic). These proceedings are set to very little music (although there are a couple of pre-fab movie music tracks by Brian Eno and some haunting Irish fiddle by Tommy Potts), and it all climaxes with a gun battle that makes inventive use of its location’s circuitry (and that’s all I’m saying about that!).
For all intents and purposes, the Network release is the film’s proper debut on DVD. Previously, THE HARD WAY has only been available as a French disc (“LE DERNIER CONTRAT” on the Les Editions Du Film Retrouve label) that merely offers version français language options, or as part of a “Triple Action Feature” set from Direct Source DVD—a set so scarce I would think it was a cancelled release if not for the few lucky bastards who report on web forums that they found it in Canadian Wal-Marts. The Network DVD boasts a nice transfer—one that trusts the grey drabness that was originally intended to set the mood for this fatalistic story (whereas the French DVD brightens the picture and saturates the colours, which almost destroys the film’s bleak atmosphere). Also included are a trailer and an art gallery.
The only criticism one can have about the Network release is the erroneous presence of some ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK stills (featuring Van Cleef) both in the art gallery and on the packaging. But Network needn’t feel too bad, as the French DVD also put one of these stills on its back cover. (Is there a standard artwork package that a DVD distributor receives when they license this film, or are some ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK stills floating around out there with “HARD WAY” mis-markings? Dunno…).
But even if the main artwork for Network’s DVD had been a picture of Jerry Lewis in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, this would still be one of the greatest, most sombre, artful crime films ever to grace a DVD collection.