1980’s The Hard Way sounds like the answer to several questions in a quiz with a special round on esoteric movie trivia. What’s the only film that Patrick McGoohan and Lee Van Cleef starred in together? What’s the only screen acting performance of the novelist Edna O’Brien? Michael Dryhurst has directed only one film – what is it called?
Other interesting factoids for collectors of arcana include that the director John Boorman is The Hard Way‘s executive producer and that much of it is filmed in Wicklow, Ireland, where Boorman lived at the time. And that Henri Decaë is the cinematographer, the monster talent who did so much work with Jean-Pierre Melville.
The opening shot, of McGoohan’s lone hitman John Connor taking a bead on his latest victim from a high lonely window, suggests that Dryhurst, Boorman and writers Kevin Grogan and Richard Ryan (the orginal director, until he fell out with McGoohan and got fired) have a Melville-esque drama in mind – of solitary men’s men who live by a strict code. Are they having a go at making an Irish version of Melville’s Le Samouräi, in which Alain Delon played a hitman in a fix?
The plot is a twist on the “one last job”. Connor is established as a cool, accomplished killer. Then he quits, or tries to at any rate, until the shadowy McNeal (Van Cleef) arrives on the scene in an attempt to pull Connor back in, first with blandishments and then with threats, aimed mostly at Connor’s estranged wife, Kathleen (O’Brien).
The hunter becomes the quarry in a series of set pieces in which “the best there is”, as we are repeatedly told, proves he really is the best, taking out any number of McNeal’s stooges before setting his sights on the main man himself.
So, no, it’s not Le Samouräi, not in plot at least, but the mood is similar – quiet, hard, cool, little said, the focus on a man of method and precision. Unlike almost any other film that’s ever been set in Ireland, there’s no romanticising going on. The landscape is wintry and bleak, the cottage where Connor lives looks cold, as if the peat fire roaring in the grate is going to take a week to knock the edge off. There is snow on the ground outside.
The man who lands himself in trouble after trying to retire calls to mind McGoohan’s magnum opus, the TV series The Prisoner, but the ending of the film – Connor and McNeal eyeing each other up for a maximally prejudicial event – also has an echo of the finale of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Much use made of Van Cleef’s “snake eyes” here.
Van Cleef is well used throughout, in fact, and his intensity is a match for McGoohan’s. In this film if McGoohan isn’t on the screen, Van Cleef is. Except in the scenes where O’Brien’s Kathleen speaks straight to camera, giving away backstory about her husband the hitman. Kathleen is not in it much but O’Brien is quietly effective as the woman damaged by a relationship with a man who already has a relationship – with a gun.
Let’s not get too gooey about this movie. There is much good stuff here but there is something missing. Maybe the lack of budget meant there wasn’t enough time to get all the shots needed. There is a lack of cinematic flow. Tight money would also explain the soundtrack – mainly ready-made music lifted from Brian Eno’s Music for Films, which fades in and out here and there and doesn’t always fit.
Watch it for the beginning, which is taut and atmospheric, and for the end, where the two men stalk each other in long, drawn-out and silent scenes full of tension. In between it’s been a relatively slow, repetitive and slightly uneventful affair, a film that seems to be a shadow of the film it wants to be. Melville manqué, if you like. If you can watch it through those eyes, of the phantom film it might have been, it’s easy to understand why it’s something of a cult favourite.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023