Portrait of a Hitman (1979)
Yes it’s a “B” actioner and made on the cheap but that doesn’t stop me from liking this flick that’s perfect fodder for my sense of low budget fun. Not to mention four names that usually reel me in for at least a one time viewing. How’s this for a quartet of name actors.
In the lead role, none other than what some may say is the image next to the word hitman in Webster’s dictionary, Jack Palance.
Bo Svenson taking second lead as Jack’s best friend and in need of his professional help.
Richard Roundtree starring as the man who wants both Jack and Bo put out of business. Permanently.
And as the Mob Boss who calls the shots, Mr. Rod Steiger.
If those four names can’t peak you’re interest, not sure what to say other than check back to see what tomorrow’s “take” will be.
In this outing from writer Yabo ( Jaguar Lives) Yablonsky, we get two sides of Jack. On the one hand he’s making a name for himself in the world of art as a painter who Steiger is fronting in the world of art galleries and an upcoming show dedicated to his work on the canvas. On the other, we get the Palance that we’ve come to expect. A cold blooded killer who does his work better than anyone which makes him Steiger’s number hitman on the payroll.
Portraying Jack’s love interest is model and part time actress in Richard Harris flicks, Ann Turkel. She’s doing double duty as both lover and the subject of his latest painting. It’s Jack’s newest assignment from Steiger that sets his life spiraling out of control in the underworld of crime and murder. A hit has been ordered on Bo Svenson. A man seemingly “unconnected” to the business that Palance moonlights in while not painting. When Steiger gives the order to Jack to put the “hit” on Svenson, Jack wants answers as to who ordered the contract and why. He goes so far as to confide in Svenson and Philip Ahn who has the presence of a wise, aging elder in the mafia underworld.
It seems that the hit has been ordered on Svenson due to the fact that he is a skilled brain surgeon who is set to perform a tricky operation on a man the mob wants dead. His survival could cause trouble for Richard Roundtree’s criminal operation. Guaranteeing the operation doesn’t happen all but condemns the patient to death. Now that Jack knows the reasoning, he’s going to have to take sides. When he does, mafia don Steiger feels betrayed by his top man and the killing begins.
There is a lot going on in this low budget effort from director Allan A. Buckhantz and Jack gives us more of a subdued performance than some of his other, shall we say over the top characterizations. It’s a role that fits him nicely and sadly it’s lost in this seldom seen movie that in the end was probably considered nothing more than a pay check to all 6 of the featured players.
Just as they had back in the excellent 1955, drama The Big Knife, Steiger and Palance appear together once again with Jack as the employee under Steiger’s powerful, manipulative boss. This time in the world of mafia hitmen, earlier in the world of movies where Jack played the star and Steiger the studio head. Hard not to think these two may have reflected upon the irony of the roles nearly a quarter of a century later.
After marrying Richard Harris in 1974, Miss Turkel had only appeared in films opposite her husband including The Cassandra Crossing and Ravagers, Portrait of a Hitman presented her for the first time without her hell raising hubby in the lead role. As for long time character player Philip Ahn, this proved to be his final film role after appearing in films ranging from the Charlie Chan mysteries of the 30’s, war film’s of the 40’s such as Back to Bataan and his role in the cult TV fave, Kung Fu as Master Kan. Just a small sampling of the countless films and TV shows you’ll see him turn up in.
Both Svenson and Roundtree could easily have been cast in the title role here but I’m not so sure Jack would have been as well suited to their roles. Jack the brain surgeon? Jack the hip, plotting up and comer in the mafia world? No I don’t think so though he could have easily played Steiger’s role. In the end the casting director got it right.