Harold Shand is a man with a plan. Although many call him a gangster, he prefers to think of himself as “a businessman with a sense of history.” As such, he wants to buy up a vast, mostly disused section of the London docks and erect a superstadium to house the 1988 Olympics. A major challenge, that; but he has some key city officials in his pocket, and he’s coaxed the US Mafia to send over a representative to pass final approval on his scheme. As Good Friday dawns, everything’s moving smoothly. Then somebody starts blowing Harold’s friends and holdings off the map.
Harold’s enraged. He’s also perplexed. Among the local mobs, things have been pretty peaceful for a decade; besides, none of them is big enough to take Harold on. The Americans? No, they’re too practical: why wreck his “corporation” when it’s so much more logical to do business with a well-set-up organization? So who’s left? Or, as Harold himself rasps, “‘O’s ‘avin’ a go at me?”
The answer does not become clear for an hour-and-a-half ‘s worth of screen time. Without divulging it here, we can say that it provides a contemporary and revivifying twist on the generic gang-war formula, as ritualized over the sixty years between D.W Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley and F.F Coppola’s The Godfather. More importantly, within The Long Good Friday itself, the assault on Harold Shand’s empire proves to have nothing to do with the many theories and motives Harold considers. It’s a mistake. And that qualifies Harold Shand as the English-language cinema’s first absurdist gangster hero.
Just about every good gangster movie you can name is a character study (something that can’t be said about any other popular film genre, save perhaps the bad-blood-related private-eye tale). The long, black limos roaring down city streets, the chatter of tommyguns, the overdressed penthouse suites and Dionysian revels in nightclubs—such fond iconography is less crucial to the gangster film than a charismatic central figure with a tragic flaw hanging out. Small wonder that so many stars—Robinson, Cagney, Muni, Tracy, Gable, Bogart—made their first vivid impressions in gangster roles. The Long Good Friday omits much of the traditional iconography (or modifies it: in this case the penthouse is tastefully overdressed), but it has that charismatic stellar role and an actor, Bob Hoskins, to fulfill its every possibility.
Harold Shand looks like a brute, throws the rages of a brute, and speaks a gutter cockney so thick that some idiots in the film-distribution game wanted to redub his voice for the movie’s American release (they didn’t prevail, thank God). But just as unexpected phrases like “Exude efficiency!” have a way of slipping into his gangland patter, so is Harold much more than a stereotype of the territorial imperative run amok.
It’s not just the Caligula haircut and thick, assertive nose that suggest he’s the avatar of some Roman emperor: Harold’s a Little Caesar by virtue of a complex, imperial, even cultural vision, not psychopathology. He offers a toast aboard his luxury river launch, predicting that a new London and a new Europe will emerge from the machinations he has set in motion. (Lovely touch, at once grandiose and throwaway: a Thames bridge above and behind him is raised in inadvertent salute.) The audience on the boat and in the theater would be more comfortable if they could shrug this off as opportunist rhetoric, but Harold really means it. He doesn’t even seem particularly concerned whether future generations will point and say, “Harold Shand did that.” He wants to be the agent of historical continuity, to add to “what England has given the world.”
The Long Good Friday doesn’t sentimentalize Harold as, say, The Godfather did Don Corleone. Nor does his shrewd maneuvering and agile, often satirical wit exempt him from some standard movie-gangster failings—for instance, a solipsistic naïveté that enables him to deplore “you can’t trust nobody” after he has forced a policeman pal to reveal the name of his prime informer. Bob Hoskins doesn’t shrink from playing Harold as a monster, but he also does him full honor as a human being. Harold’s frightening; but when we part from him and his world during a last, long-sustained closeup, it is with a genuine sense of loss.
Hoskins’ performance alone would make The Long Good Friday a must-see item; happily, the other elements of the movie are almost as good. Helen Mirren is the soul of intelligent sensuality as Harold’s mistress, de facto partner, and best friend. She’s not the brains behind Harold’s brawn, because he has a keen brain of his own, but she has a genius for polishing his act even as he’s in mid-performance, and she puts us in touch with a level of Harold’s emotionality that would have remained undisclosed without her presence. In his brief part as a gay colleague of Harold’s, Paul Freeman does more acting than in his entire master-villain role in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Derek Thompson gives a deceptively casual performance as Harold’s deceptively casual righthand man, and Eddie Constantine contributes his well-fed world-weariness to the part of the American visitor (though the actor has lived in France so long that he now pronounces “bourbon” as though it were the name of a certain royal family).
All of the behind-the-camera names are new to me, but they’ll bear watching for on other films. Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay is rife with tasty dialogue and deploys a complicated plot deftly, even daring to indulge in purposeful confusion now and again. Francis Monkman has supplied a driving jazz score that transmits Harold’s motive energy to the rest of the film while also hinting at his nostalgia for a bygone English grandeur.
Director John Mackenzie, doing his first feature work after a career in TV, keeps finding crisp angles from which to view the action without, for the most part, lapsing into gimmick. Several sequences are tours-de-force of rhythmic control. Among other things, he brings off moments of violence that are what movie violence almost never manages to be: truly shocking, viscerally painful, and absolutely integral to this exciting, intelligently disturbing film.
The Weekly, June 2, 1982
Postscript: Turns out the presskit was wrong about John Mackenzie. He had directed the not-very-satisfying Unman, Wittering and Zigo, starring David Hemmings, back at the beginning of the Seventies. His work post-Friday has come nowhere near the high standard set by this movie, though the performances of Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins in Beyond the Limit (The Honorary Consul) are first-rate.
Copyright © 1982 by Richard T. Jameson