The Long Good Friday (1980)

D: John Mackenzie
S: Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren

Gripping gangster movie set in London pitting crime boss Bob Hoskins against an unidentified enemy on the eve of the biggest deal of his career. Hoskins plays a tough, self-made mobster who is just about to arrange an international business deal with American mob financier Eddie Constantine (Alphaville). He plans to develop London's docklands, but his attempts to impress his visitors with his control of the situation are hampered by a sudden and deadly reign of terror which falls upon him on Good Friday. As his top men are killed one by one, Hoskins sets out to discover who has come after him and stop them in their tracks. Meanwhile wife Helen Mirren tries to smooth things over with the Americans. As he tears about the city in search of his hidden assailants, Hoskins is brought face to face with the path to his success which he views without apparent irony, but which the audience, familiar with the conventions of the genre, will see on quite a different level.

A searing portrait of social villainy, The Long Good Friday was, and remains one of the best gangster films ever made, certainly the best made in Britain. Anchored by an intense, sympathetic performance from Hoskins matched by a beautifully subtle turn by Mirren as his much more than a moll wife, the film rockets through a succession of explicitly and implicitly violent confrontations which bring questions of the relationship between capitalism, masculinity, and thuggery into focus against a potent political and economic backdrop. The film was eerily prescient in 1980 and now seems as pointed a commentary on the Thatcherite 1980s as anything made during and after Thatcher's actual period in office (the film was made before her election). A superb supporting cast convincingly portrays the hard-edged but understated world of corruption, collusion, and intimidation and the script by Barrie Keefe continually turns the screws in a narrative which mixes mystery and suspense with action and drama. The film is as effective in its quieter moments as it is when men are being stabbed, beaten, hung in meat lockers, or otherwise subjected to physical abuse in the name of a certain peace which will secure the continued exploitation of Britain for the next decades. Scenes where Hoskins and his men speak about the situation or where Hoskins pressures corrupt cops and politicians for information through words alone are as loaded with drama as those soaked in blood, and there is character drama in every relationship which feeds into the resolution of the plot.

Though fairly modestly budgeted, the film manages to evoke the contrasts of its world very well. A striking scene early on has Hoskins make an impassioned speech about his vision for the future of Britain at a swanky reception on board a boat cruising the Thames. Shortly beforehand we have seen him attempt to keep his more rugged employees in check, demonstrating an awareness of the tensions and ironies which inform this new social order. Scenes where Hoskins visits his old neighbourhood and comments on the class (and race) of people now living there are ripe with bitter satire, as are almost parallel scenes where Mirren dines the Americans in an elegant restaurant in the company of an abusive city counsellor who is implicated in the underhand dealings which define the action. Under John Makenzie's direction, cinematographer Phil Meheux does not push the palette or attempt to overcook the script with undue visual gymnastics, although the opening scenes, crosscutting as yet inexplicably interrelated incidents, are confusing. Partly constrained by budget, arguably directed with an eye for the power of the story as it unfolds through a series of well-plotted, tightly constructed scenes, the film leaves a cumulative cinematic impression of distance and observation which pays off beautifully in the final moments with that long, long take of Hoskins' face as he ponders what has just happened to him and what is likely to follow.

Re-released both in Region 1 and Region 2 on excellent DVDs, The Long Good Friday is a timely reminder of a more intelligent and effective approach to the genre than that exemplified by its progeny. Films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Rancid Aluminium, The Circus, and Snatch would claim descendence from this but only Gangster No. 1 (and earlier, The Krays) has so far demonstrated any grasp of the sense of enveloping darkness which makes this one so effective. Though it has plenty of gallows humour and works hard to generate a measure of affection for its 'likely lad' central character, it is a classic gangster film in that the gangster's villainy is firmly rooted in the society which has produced him in the first place. The Long Good Friday turns on the difference between political and profit-motivated violence, eventually suggesting that political radicalism will sweep over more 'traditional' criminals. This argument finally proved to be something of a 1960s leftist red herring, but the film is also able to draw crime and capital together in a pleasing fashion and point out that the rise and fall of a character like this has less to do with his individualism than with his complicity in a system which is bigger than him and which will eventually destroy him. This is light years away from the free-willed would-be hipsters who populate the late nineties variety of British gangster film which ultimately owe more to Tarantino than to Mackenzie and Keefe.

Both DVDs come with commentaries and interviews which explain the troubled distribution history of the film, which almost did not see the light of day in its original form for reasons best explored on your own. It is certainly an essential DVD purchase for movie buffs and should find favour even with casual viewers who may be surprised by how brutal the film appears to be with comparatively little actual blood.

Note: The Region 1 DVD is part of the Criterion Collection. The Region 2, which has much the same features, comes from Anchor Bay.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.