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Those American audiences lucky to see The Long Good Friday in 1982 were shocked to see that the gangster film was alive and well. The Godfather were period pictures, but this story's Cockney mob boss Harold Shand is a true original who combines old-time violence with more modern forms of corruption. Director John Mackenzie's film captures the mood of the late 1970s in London, where a pro-business greed is rebuilding and gentrifying the city with mob money. The film has a tour-de-force performance from the great Bob Hoskins, and another just as striking from the marvelous Helen. Her loyal wife abets gangster Shand's bid to legitimize his illegal rackets the modern way, by becoming a big boss in the real estate racket.
The BFI officially lists The Long Good Friday as one of the top British films of all time, and in genre terms it is on equal terms with the gangster classics of the 1930s. It's as connected to the conservative Thatcher years in England as the American greats are about Prohibition. The tightly constructed screenplay by Barrie Keeffe introduces a disturbingly modern element as the London mob squares off against a modern, unprecedented enemy. Atop director John Mackenzie's stunning gallery of actors is the fantastic Mr. Hoskins. His runty, vicious Harold Shand is a true screen original, a convincing Cockney kingpin of London's underworld.
The story begins with gun violence in Ireland that soon comes to roost in the heart of London. Mob boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) rules from his posh penthouse and a yacht docked 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 Victoria (Helen Mirren), a charming hostess who lends him a much-needed touch of class. All is going great until Good Friday, when one of Shand's top associates is murdered and bombs start going off in Harold's clubs. Harold fumes, rages and threatens to tear his own organization apart to find out who's hitting him... but he hasn't the faintest notion what's really going on.
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 comes 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 his pleasant dinner pub is blown to bits seconds before he's to arrive with his American investor. While 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? 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 a symbol of the grand future of England, which is no longer an empire but a mere 'investment opportunity.' The big development deal would shift Harold 100% into legit business territory, leaving behind a lifetime of gang struggle. Liberal critics surely seized on this image because it harmonizes with 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 his cronies by hanging some of them from their heels in a slaughterhouse -- a whole row of topsy-turvy hoods hanging next to the frozen meat. When violence breaks out, it's always unpredictable, like shotgun murders at a stock car racing track. Harold's volcanic temper explodes when things don't go his way. Wife Victoria and best pal Jeff must physically restrain him from going berserk.
A lot of the movie is spoken in a specific Cockney dialect with key phrases bandied about without explanation. In America, 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. Not at all a trophy wife, Victoria demonstrates as much nerve as Harold, and makes wiser decisions under pressure. Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Ark) is solid in a brief role as a gay gangster lieutenant. Eddie Constantine is fine as the Yank investor, except that after living in France for 34 years, singing and acting in French, he no longer sounds like an American! An actor named P.H. Moriarty is surprisingly effective as a henchman with a wicked scar on his face. And 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. The big thematic twist comes when Harold finally discovers what "gang" is tearing up his empire. While his associates and the cops run for cover, Harold tries to deal with these newcomers as he would any other rival mob, buying them off or learning their secrets and wiping them out - the same tactics used by big business. It's a big mistake. "It's like a bad night in Belfast!" Harold wails. In this new arena his gangster methods are totally outclassed.
This basic theme informs some of the more interesting movies about modern heroes. 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 can't comprehend that his new enemy has the edge because they fight for ideals, not profit. They can't be bought off. He may be the top dog in the London rackets, but these guys can blow him away any time they wish.
Arrow Video's Region B Steelbook Blu-ray + PAL DVD of The Long Good Friday is a new 2K transfer commissioned by Arrow and overseen by cameraman Phil Meheux. The improvement really shows. An early Criterion DVD was as murky and unattractive as old cable TV videos. An Anchor Bay DVD (2006) and Image Blu-ray (2010) were better but still dark and slightly soft. This new scan adds detail, eliminates dirt and (best of all) stabilizes the image. The main titles are still not razor sharp but they no longer weave about the screen. This edition comes in a shiny Steelbook package, with both a Blu-ray and a DVD version.
Arrow Video has a knack for putting its effort into the best extras. They've wisely reached back to the DVD for Perry Martin's original long-form making-of docu Bloody Business. I think it's the best piece produced by the prolific group of added value artists then working for Anchor Bay. It blows up to HD quite well, with interviews with all of the film's main players -- director John Mackenzie, writer Keeffe, the producer Barry Hanson and actors Hoskins, Mirren and Pierce Brosnan. We hear fascinating stories about the film's tempestuous distribution history. ITC reportedly 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.
The main feature carries a commentary from director John Mackenzie. New interviews with writer Barrie Keeffe, producer Barry Hanson and Phil Meheux are included. Also new is Hands Across the Water, a nifty featurette with direct comparisons of scenes that were re-voiced for America, to replace Cockney terms like "nicked" and "glass house." A pair of trailers are included; the American trailer is an exciting construct narrated by the deep voice of the famous Jaws trailer, Percy Rodriguez. Arrow's glossy illustrated souvenir booklet has an essay by Mark Duguid.
Arrow is also offering a non-Steelbook Six-Disc Limited Edition that adds Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 PAL DVD discs for Neil Jordan's feature Mona Lisa and John Mackenzie's disturbing public service short Apaches, a farm safety film that calmly shows five or six kids getting killed in various gruesome ways while playing with farm machinery etc. The various demises are extremely realistic, even when a child is sucked down into what looks like a manure bog. This deluxe alternate ediiton can be found at Amazon UK as well. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I had a slight tangential contact with this film through a post production and trailer house that was once on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood, that I did a lot of work for in 1989 and 1990. The owner's close partner, editor and technical finisher was Mike Taylor, the editor of The Long Good Friday. Ace trailer editor Les Kaye and I were big fans of the film and asked Taylor about it and his career every chance we got. Mike was a really nice guy -- he also edited the cult favorite Quadrophenia and the Brit TV series The Tripods.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.