Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Long Good Friday is officially listed as one of the top British films, and it's certainly one of the best gangster pictures ever made, sitting right up there alongside the likes of Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface. This sizzler is as much about its era -- the conservative Thatcher years in England -- as the American greats are about Prohibition. Barrie Keeffe's tightly constructed screenplay is not only tough, it brings in a disturbing political element as mob capitalism is proven ineffectual against modern Terror methods. Top director John Mackenzie guides a stunning gallery of actors, topped by a fantastic performance from the powerhouse Bob Hoskins, whose runty, vicious Harold Shand is a true screen original, a convincing Cockney kingpin of London's underworld.
Mob boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) rules London from his posh penthouse and his yacht on the Thames. He controls restaurants, pubs, casinos and even bathhouses with the aid of an army of Cockney henchmen and coordinated assists from local authorities. Old cronies Councilman Harris (Bryan Marshall) and top detective Parky (Dave King) grease the wheels at city hall for Harold's planned venture to develop the disused river wharf area into a major entertainment and hotel complex. Harold's right-hand men Colin (Paul Freeman) and Jeff (Derek Thompson) are making the arrangements to wine and dine visiting American investor Charlie (Eddie Constantine of Alphaville). Harold has a sterling asset in his wife, upscale hostess Victoria (Helen Mirren), a charmer who knows how to smooth out social problems and lends him a touch of class. All is going great until Good Friday, when bombs start going off in Harold's clubs and one of his top associates is murdered. Harold fumes, rages and threatens to tear his own organization apart to find out who's hitting his 'corporation' ... but the problem appears to be somewhere else.
Made in 1979 but held up for release until 1981because of its political content, The Long Good Friday crackles with excitement and tension, all of it coming from Bob Hoskins' ferocious bantam Harold Shand. Harold is no sooner returned from America than his top pal is knifed in a pool-spa, and a bomb blows up his pleasant dinner pub seconds before he's to arrive with his American investor. While his wife Victoria tries her best to put on a good front, Harold dashes back and forth across London, throwing his weight around. It's obvious that his criminal empire is under attack, but by whom? His big development deal would put him 100% into legit business territory, with a lifetime of gang struggle gone forever. The last hint of mob opposition dried up ten years ago -- Harold has to admit to his corrupt cop buddy Parky that there simply isn't any competition capable of hitting him like this. Refusing to listen to reason, Harold wades into his own people, looking for the responsible party.
The Long Good Friday doesn't so much conjure an atmosphere as create an entire world. Harold stands framed before the Tower Bridge, making a patriotic speech about the grand future of England as an investment opportunity. Liberal critics (doubtlessly the ones responsible for the film's high rating in Brit film history) surely seized on this image because it characterizes Margaret Thatcher's shutdown of 'socialist' England as basically a Free Pass for capitalist opportunists. The timing is perfect: The run-down, empty docks behind Harold's yacht will soon be transformed into glitzy new developments as public land is put to use for private profit. Harold wants to be the new prince of the city, but his hoodlum past suddenly catches up with him.
The film has some unforgettable set pieces. Harold puts the fear of God into some of his cronies by having them kidnapped and hung from their heels in a slaughterhouse - a whole row of them. When violence breaks out, it's always unpredictable, like shotgun murders at a stock car racing track. Harold's volcanic temper is put to the test when things don't go his way. Wife Victoria and best pal Jeff have to physically restrain him from going berserk, and even then he's difficult to control.
A lot of the movie is spoken in a specific Cockney dialect with key phrases being bandied about without explanation. Embassy Pictures actually added a short glossary of words before the film. "Manor" = turf, "To grass" = to inform, and "Bottle" = nerve. Some phrases are harder than others to make out but the language of the film is fascinating -- it's like listening to a foreign tongue yet being able to understand most of what's being said. We aren't meant to get a handle on what's going on in the first few scenes, but with the arrival of Harold Shand on the supersonic Concorde the movie clicks into clarity.
All the acting definitely clicks, with Helen Mirren a standout. She looks like a trophy wife at first but soon demonstrates as much nerve as Harold, and makes wiser decisions under pressure. Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Arc) is solid in a brief role as a gay gangster lieutenant. An actor named P.H. Moriarty is effective as a henchman with a wicked scar on his face. And we're surprised to see none other than Pierce Brosnan in for two short but memorable bits as a hit man.
The Long Good Friday takes place over an Easter Weekend and some of the ghastly events appear to correspond to the Catholic stations of the cross. One character is accused of being a Judas and another is literally crucified. (Spoiler) The big thematic twist comes when Harold finally discovers that the "gang" blowing up his empire is the I.R.A.. While everyone else runs for cover -- cops, associates -- Harold thinks he can deal with the "Micks" just like any other gang, which is a big mistake. "It's like a bad night in Belfast!" Harold wails. In this new arena his gangster methods are totally outclassed. Sherlock Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is no match for international spies, and Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly is out of his depth dealing with nuclear weaponry. Harold Shand just doesn't understand that Terrorists have an edge because they fight for ideas, not profit. He may be the top dog in the London rackets, but they can blow him away any time they wish. 1
Anchor Bay's Explosive Special Edition of The Long Good Friday is a major improvement over Criterion's early (#26!) disc from 1998, which bore an Anchor Bay logo as well. This improved and enhanced transfer looks much cleaner, and we only regret that neither disc has English subtitles, although closed captions are available.
The rich audio, much smoother than on the Criterion disc, is a showcase for Francis Monkman's superb music. His pounding, jazzy main theme gives the picture momentum and lends extra power and presence to Bob Hoskins. Compared to this picture, the excellent Newcastle-based gang drama Get Carter is unfocused and poky.
Crest Labs' added-value producer Perry Martin assembles a terrific long-form docu called Bloody Business, a stylish interview-based analysis of the film's history using all the main players - director John Mackenzie, writer Keeffe, the producer and actors Hoskins, Mirren and Pierce Brosnan. All of them are rightly proud to have been part of a classic that made the grade. Hoskins talks about barely recovering from a tapeworm in time to play the part -- he picked up while filming Zulu Dawn. The still-dreamy Ms. Mirren tells us that she insisted on having Victoria promoted from gun moll to equal partner with her husband. Brosnan is visibly jazzed to recall his first, if tiny, acting breakthrough.
The tightly edited docu has some excellent stories to tell. Originally funded by ITC, the film scared exhibitors afraid of I.R.A. reprisals (?) and inflamed conservatives that didn't like its message that the I.R.A. could win. The film languished until the company tried to chop it by a third and re-voice Bob Hoskins in a different dialect. One actors' revolt and a buyout deal later, The Long Good Friday was picked up by George Harrison's Handmade Films and released to resounding critical acclaim and public success.
Director Mackenzie also contributes a commentary that will straighten out all the details of the plot for viewers that didn't follow it completely. Trailers, a poster & still gallery and talent bios are included, as is the entire screenplay as a DVD-ROM feature. Richard Harland Smith provides a jaunty insert essay on Good Friday's place in the history of British gangster pix. Best of all is a lengthy Cockney Slang Glossary that has a number of examples of Rhyming Slang: "Brown bread" = dead; "Drum and fife" = a knife. There must be 50 ways of saying "informer."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Long Good Friday rates:
Supplements: Commentary, Docu Bloody Business, Screenplay (DVD-ROM), galleries, text extras, Trailers
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 31, 2006
1. The Long Good Friday is yet another great film that ends on a long, extended close up on a leading character as he/she goes through a number of emotions. I'm thinking of Giulieta Masina in Nights of Cabiria and June Allyson in The Glenn Miller Story. It proves that the film has us: The narrative can just 'seize up' while the themes and tension play across the face of the leading player. It's marvelous to see Bob Hoskins glower, simmer and boil, gnashing his teeth and trying to come up with the correct plan for his situation ...
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.