A pivotal moment in British movie history — and Bob Hoskins’s greatest performance
When Bob Hoskins died earlier this year, far too young, I was struck by the almost universal assertion that Mona Lisa was his best film. I haven’t seen them all, but I have seen one that is better: indeed, so much better that I would put it as perhaps the finest film made in Britain in the last quarter of the 20th century, and a film that always yields something new however often one watches it. I refer, of course, to The Long Good Friday.
I saw it at the cinema when it came out in 1980 and found it, on first sight, utterly gripping. It made Hoskins, playing the East End gangster Harold Shand, a star. Repeated viewings over almost 35 years, and the benefit of hindsight — or rather, of historical perspective — have elevated the film for me to being an important document of the times as well as a magnificent piece of cinema. It was made in the summer of 1979 at a pivotal moment in British history, and in the history of London. It was the dawn of the Thatcher era, when the emphasis was on entrepreneurship as a means to reversing the nation’s decline. Harold Shand has decided to go straight. He has his eye on a development site in his “manor”, one of the symbols of what went wrong with Britain after the Second World War — the near-derelict London docklands of the late 1970s. He wants to provide the location for an Olympic Games in East London, but his criminal empire is insufficient to provide the funding. He needs a partner and, aiming high as always, decides to join up with a Mafia boss from New York.
However, plans go badly awry. On the Good Friday in question Harold lands in a Concorde from New York and hosts a drinks party that morning on the Thames, describing his plans to the assembly. Over the next few hours he learns, among other things, that his Rolls-Royce has been blown up outside the church where his mother has been attending the service; that his best friend has been stabbed to death in a swimming baths; another trusty is nailed to the floor (this is Good Friday, after all); and a bomb is planted at the West End casino that, Kray-style, he happens to own. He seeks to find out who is trying to put the frighteners on him at a very delicate time: the Mafia are about to arrive and the last thing they want is to have Harold attracting such attention. It turns out that the stabbed friend, in a freelance operation, had stolen £5,000 from the IRA, and the IRA aren’t happy. Harold tracks them down, offers to make amends, double-crosses them and kills two terrorists, but the film ends with him being driven away from the Savoy not by his own driver but by two IRA men, one of whom — played by Pierce Brosnan — is pointing a gun at him. Crime doesn’t pay.
Terrorism, though, might. That was certainly the opinion of Lew Grade, who commissioned the film to show on television, and who was shocked by what he saw, believing it glamorised Republican terrorism at a time when the Troubles were an open wound. It does nothing of the sort: the IRA are shown as psychopathic killers and gangsters, rather like a parasite taking over a host. And the ordinary London gangster, who has through fear and violence lorded it over others for so long, is seen, through their agency, coming to an inevitably unpleasant end. Grade said he would only show the film with heavy cuts, which prompted those responsible for it to protest at his vandalism. Happily, George Harrison’s Handmade Films intervened, bought the project, and gave it a cinematic release. It swiftly achieved cult status.
There are many reasons why the film is great, but they start with the script. It was written by Barrie Keeffe, better known as a playwright, who had originally been commissioned to do it by Euston Films. Euston was an arm of Thames Television and best remembered now for The Sweeney. Although Keeffe never wrote for The Sweeney, The Long Good Friday bears many of the hallmarks of a Euston production, and is none the worse for that — a thrilling interplay between gangsters and the police, violence, motors, bent coppers, fluent Cockney, the urban backdrop and tremendous wit. Harold, after his Roller is blown up, comments with no obvious irony that Good Friday is an inappropriate time to start crucifying people. He describes his stabbed friend as being taken out “like a raspberry ripple”.
Even when Harold is facing overwhelming odds, his jokes keep coming. And Keeffe wrote one of the most memorable scenes in the British cinema, when Harold borrows an abattoir to question other gangsters about what they know of who is persecuting him. The men come in hanging upside down from meathooks, while Harold lectures them on how there has been “an eruption”.
The cinematography is stunning, capturing the London waterfront and the East End in a time of transition. The acting is equal to the excellence of Keeffe’s script. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Hoskins playing Harold Shand, let alone anyone playing him better. Hoskins exudes a menace and an arrogance that, ironically, combine to make his character a pitiful figure when the seediness of his criminal empire is exposed, and when his inadequacies are laid bare by the IRA and cause the Mafia to abandon any idea of working with him. As with many bullies, he eventually comes up against someone who is an even bigger bully than he is.
Helen Mirren, as his girlfriend, is not a Central Casting gangster’s moll. She is from the right side of the tracks — she claims to have played hockey with Princess Anne — but seems to have a genuine affection for Harold that causes her to compromise any standards she might once have had. And Dave King was born to play the part of Parky, the corrupt senior Met officer.
The film is believable because it seems to represent how the underbelly of London really was, and how the people who populated it really were. But it also captures a moment of immense cultural and historical significance. If you have never seen it, I envy you the treat you have in store when you do.