Movies at The Distillery: I Hired a Contract Killer & Roman Holiday

Before Christmas I put aside a twenty-year-long beef I had with Jim Jarmusch movies to review Stranger than Paradise. I’m really glad I did because the film’s a gem, and my renewed enthusiasm for all things Jarmuschian also led me to Paterson, comfortably one of last year’s best movies.

I Hired a Contract Killer/Roman Holiday

Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki/William Wyler
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Margi Clarke, Kenneth Colley, Joe Strummer

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Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power

This month, I had an opportunity to revisit two more artists that I took an instant dislike to during my early years as a film buff – Audrey Hepburn and cult Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki.

I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) 

Kaurismäki makes films so dry and deadpan that you’ll almost laugh. Unless you’re fully tuned into his wavelength, there’s a distinct possibility that the humour could fly right over your head and leave you thinking, “What the hell am I watching here?”

That was  my exact experience when I saw Leningrad Cowboys Go America, his droll road movie about a Russian band on tour in the States. I didn’t get it, I didn’t laugh, I didn’t even watch the end, and was so gutted by the mirthless experience that I vowed never to watch one of this guy’s films again. In retrospect it was at least partly my problem – I was still paying to watch Jim Carrey pretend to talk out of his butt in Ace Ventura movies at the time, so I wasn’t really prepared for Kaurismäki’s subliminal sense of humour.

I fared rather better with I Hired a Contract Killer. It’s a minimalist black comedy about a lonely London office drone, Henri Boulanger (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who decides to kill himself after losing his job. He’s so down on his luck that he can’t even manage that, so he hires a hitman in a seedy pub to take care of the matter for him. Soon after he falls in love with a flower girl and tries to call off the hit, but unfortunately the pub has been knocked down and he has no way of making contact…

The story sounds like a generic Hollywood action thriller with a dash of romance thrown in, and the familiarity of the plot gives the viewer an easy way into Kaurismäki’s world. However, he plays the action at such an odd tempo that it feels like something completely original. He shoots London as a post-industrial wasteland, of shabby offices, sordid pubs, joyless greasy spoon cafes, and sleazy hotel rooms. There’s plenty to enjoy visually if you’re a fan of picturesque urban decay.

Like his mate Jarmusch (who had a cameo in Leningrad Cowboys),  Kaurismäki is not shy about throwing in a gratuitous cameo into his films, and Joe Strummer (The Clash) shows up about halfway through to play a song. Otherwise it’s all Léaud’s show, and it’s a masterclass of comic understatement. We spend a lot of time looking at his unsmiling, expressionless face, and he generates a vast amount of pathos from the barest flicker of his eyes or twitch of his lips. It’s a comic performance reminiscent of Buster Keaton, just without the breakneck stunts.

Roman Holiday (1953) 

I’ve always struggled with Audrey Hepburn as an actress thanks to My Fair Lady. I was on a sugar rush after seeing Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen for the first time and was chasing the dragon, devouring as many big Hollywood musical extravaganzas as I could lay my hands on. Then I landed on My Fair Lady. Hepburn’s performance as Eliza Doolittle is so shrill, broad and mannered that it makes me run up the curtains and start hissing like a cat. And that’s before we start talking about her alleged Cockney accent, which somehow manages to be worse than Dick van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins. That first contact coloured my whole opinion of the actress, and I’ve avoided her films ever since.

Despite my Hepburn-aversion, Roman Holiday is a charming film. It was her breakthrough role after several bit parts, and she’s radiant – she owns the movie and it’s always fascinating to see the moment a star was born. She plays Ann, a princess on a stopover in Rome who is frustrated with her over-protected, regimented lifestyle. She just wants to get out and live a little, and after escaping her embassy one evening runs into a expat reporter, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). He shows her the town, they check out the sights, ride a scooter together, sort of fall in love…

Hepburn and Peck are extremely watchable together but don’t have much chemistry, which means Roman Holiday lacks the kind of crackle that makes for a truly classic romantic comedy, such as Some Like it Hot or His Girl Friday. They’re both curiously sexless actors and you can’t really imagine these two getting it on, so their romance feels rather chaste.

On the plus side, it’s is a very underrated summer movie. Filmed on location in the city, the production couldn’t afford to shoot in colour, so they went with sparkling black and white instead. It works beautifully – Rome looks gorgeous and the film shimmers with classy ’50s chic. If there’s ever a film that will make you want to rent a scooter and ride around in Italian traffic without a helmet, it’s Roman Holiday.

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Both films are showing at Kino Art’s temporary venue at The Distillery this month.

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