Gangster movies don't get better than Handmade Films' The Long Good Friday. The BFI officially lists it as one of the top British films, and in genre terms it sits 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 a disused river wharf into a major entertainment and hotel complex for the upcoming Olympics. Harold's right-hand men Colin (Paul Freeman) and Jeff (Derek Thompson) arrange to wine and dine visiting American Mafia 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 much-needed 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 source of the problem appears to lie somewhere else.
Made in 1979 but held up for release until 1981 because of its political content, The Long Good Friday crackles with excitement and tension, much of it coming from Bob Hoskins' ferocious bantam Harold Shand. Harold has 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 shift 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 remarks 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, offering himself as symbolic of the grand future of England, at least 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 and her issuance of 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 is positioned as the new prince of the city, until 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 intiailly looks like a trophy wife 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 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" as he would any other rival mob, 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 the edge because they fight for ideals, not profit. He may be the top dog in the London rackets, but they can blow him away any time they wish. 1
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of The Long Good Friday looks fine in HD. No restoration has occurred, leaving the titles as unsteady as they ever were and a bit of dirt here and there, but by and large the transfer is slightly sharper than earlier releases. I couldn't hear any major improvement in the audio tracks, but they're listed as being in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which should be uncompressed.
Where the release breaks down is in the extras department. The Long Good Friday was a very early Criterion disc without any extras or a really very good transfer. But our curiosity about the film's history was more than rewarded by Anchor Bay's Explosive Special DVD Edition from 2006. That release's excellent making-of docu (produced by Perry Martin) interviewed all of the film's main players -- director John Mackenzie, writer Keeffe, the producer and actors Hoskins, Mirren and Pierce Brosnan. All of them tell fascinating stories about the production. The movie also had a tempestuous distribution history. ITC supposedly backed out over fears of I.R.A. reprisals, and the movie languished until George Harrison's Handmade Films stepped in to make it a surprise hit.
Extras-wise, about all that can be said for Image's new Blu-ray is that it has English subtitles denied the two previous discs. For Americans these are essential, at least if one wishes to fully follow what the characters are saying in detail. No Cockney slang glossary here! But if you want to know about the fascinating history of this movie, and already have the older Anchor Bay Explosive Special Edition, hang onto it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Long Good Friday Blu-ray rates:
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 ...
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