Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand
Helen Mirren as Victoria (1979 The Long Good Friday, directed by John Mackenzie, written by Barrie Keefe, produced by Barry Hansen)
Dear friends and readers,
No one can re-boot this.
I try not to use hyped terms but am driven to one to convey the experience of this film even today: astonishing; this is an astonishing film. Made in 1979, released Nov 1980, even before the Thatcher era got underway, a gangster film (it was felt) was the appropriate vehicle for capturing how Margaret Thatcher saw the UK, what she wanted to turn the UK into, her own aggressive menacing role. Shand is Thatcher too.
The Long Good Friday is as edgy as Breaking Bad; I’d call it all edge:
Just before letting the assault weapons and bombs off
Its violence is as viscerally shocking
Slaughtering by accident, Jeff (Derek Thompson) whom Shand loves like a son
Shand orders all his franchise owners beaten up, hung like meat from hooks in a garage
Other older films that have transcended their time that come to mind: Robert Wise’s 1960 The Haunting. Both have perceptive voice-over commentary worth taking the time to listen. I mention this one because its means are so original and for the time the story. The Long Good Friday is utterly conventional in outline, including Mirren’s part as the gun-moll, mannered trophy wife.
What makes the experience on this level is Bob Hoskins. He transformed himself into this half-crazed deeply emotional man — a member of instance of the type Marlon Brando played. Also James Cagney who felt less controlled, more wild. Hoskins played with real subtlety or projecting power and also thought so that his face seemed to exude rage, anguish, retribution, indignation that he, this businessman, this patriot, he who was going to put Britain on the map was to be fleeced, cowed, forced to pay money to the IRA as a terrorist organization supporting itself by a protection racket. I have seen him as effective as Florio in the TV film made of Middleton’s Changeling.
About to be told he has to knuckle under
The music for its time daring: it’s a rolling, whirling pop rock, hard, percussive, lots of horns, with a band whose teams included John Williams. Raucous fun. For fun these people like to drink, live luxuriously, have beautiful sex partners, and blow one another up in cars on the race track. We’ve grown used to these equations. The film’s open attitude towards sex was not seen until a decade after the 21st century: of those murdered one of most sympathized with is a homosexual man.
the partner picking up an innocent (a young Kevin McNally) who will be murdered and carelessly thrown out of a car
What catapults the film into 2015, gives it a gravitas and political complexion is it turns out the “enemy” trying to destroy our protagonist-hero’s empire is the IRA here a terrorist Irish gang trying to extort large sums off this empire to fund itself. Our hero is usually successful in stamping out (literally) all opposition, but here he meets his match. He is told at one point, just give in, these people are “not interested in money, they are political” [whispered in a hysterical hushed kind of way), “fanatics” (equated, with a screech).
They are matched or behave just as the characters in the film who are members of the US gov’t, British politicians, other businessmen, Irish men too, all gangsters, all of them inside a competitive circle of violence. (As contrasted to Breaking Bad where the police are good guys.)
The role of women as mourning, weeping in graveyards, fiercely in white rages themselves, spitting at men’s faces so familiar from the Godfather begins here
On first watching it last week, I suspected it was part fable, but no it was true that in the IRA funded itself by terror tactics. Here is Helen Mirren in an interview about the film on the occasion of the film’s 35th anniversary. My friend Fran remarked:
Glad you enjoyed the film, Ellen. It made a big impression on me at the time and not only because of the great, nuanced character acting by Bob Hoskins in particular and its intelligent, mulit-layered and sometimes darkly humorous script. As you say, it’s a very edgy, very atmospheric film.
Up till then I hadn’t been aware that one of the reasons the IRA was so resistant to peace talks was neither religious not political, but rather the fact that they were in on a lot of the local crime and protection rackets and didn’t want things to change and lose all that. I wasn’t sure how much was fact or fiction, so asked a client of mine at the time, a young, non-violent, Catholic separatist from Belfast and he said this aspect was very true. If you had a local business or pub and paid them off, for example, you were safe from attacks.
The background to the making of the film also fits in with a few recent threads we’ve had like censorship. Its release date was delayed because the man whose company financed it, Lew Grade, a commercial TV magnate, wanted it heavily censored, massively cut and Hoskins‘ Cockney accent dubbed over (!). After a lot of wrangling, the film rights were eventually bought back and the film was fortunately released in its intended form.
You mention Mirren’s role being conventional for the most part, but she had to fight every inch of the way for it to be developed and given more weight, which fits in with the piece Diane linked on the marginalisation of women in film.
I’m just now reading an excellent book on the history of British Television Drama by Lez Cooke, which goes far to explain how this kind of explosive, socially conscious and nuanced art emerged on British TV and films in the 1980s; an area also covered in depth using specific (other) films, in Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (the title of a powerful documentary), an anthology edited by Lester Friedman. There are 6 substantial essays on Thatcher-era and ideology films: most of them critical-evaluative of her.
The feature on the DVD — a full hour – is worth watching, a paratext in itself about how they made the film, the techniques. Macenkie said he had James Cagney in mind when he thought of the core character of the film: the conception of Harold Shand. A man whose inner self and world is attacked and how he will not bend, yield, thniks he can beat out the terrorist group, persuade the businessmen and politicians. He finds he is wrong on all counts. Helen Mirren is truthful that she did not change her role that much, and had to fight for what she got; but she is active in the film — yes as hostess, smoothing Shand’s way, enabling him to be middle class, but an extraordinary moment is probably one that was created while shooting: after Shand has (see the still above) traumatically for himself murdered by accident his young son-like partner (rather like Rafe Sadler to Cromwell inn Wolf Hall more than Jesse to Mr White), Shand is in such a rage he rushes out to kill another man, and she comes out of the car where she has driven up, stands before him, runs after, pulls at him and he drags her on the grounds, up she gets and inserts her body in the way of his killing another friend, and all four physically intensely with two men on either side.
It’s an unforgettable sequence which I snapped because I thought it showed another aspect of this film: the spontaneous free-floating use of the camera, the director’s confidence to let people act out, and its ensemble nature:
She holds tight until he calms down
She vindicated herself in the role of the cop in Prime Suspect many years later. I don’t know what was her greatest role; she attempted so many parts, but I’d opt for her most memorable role as the abused beautiful wife in Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover, a shocking taboo-horror breaker.
In the feature Mackenzie makes it explicit the film is meant to embody Thatcher like ideas, especially in Shand, and they do go over the IRA part of the plot. A terrorist organization they say opposed to a capitalist thug. That’s the “two sides.” They don’t assert explicitly that the IRA was a protection racket was. Are content to imply this. I don’t have an idealization of the IRA but did not know they made money as thugs and gangsters. They do talk about the black humor of the action, motives of people, and desperate ending where Shand is driven off by an IRA assault-gun toting hit man. Pierce Brosnan who went on to have a commercially successful career remarks the ensemble nature of what they did: he didn’t have to learn any lines.
The title refers to the day the story takes place. Good Friday. Shand’s mother goes to church, and we see her there inbetween shots of the first two murders: the young man, the homosexual partner. London is beautifully filmed in color, without cliched icons. Mackenzie projects an opulence on the docks for Shand and his wife, and he says he looked forward to the coming buildup. The shots are some of them picturesque and glittering:
The feature also tells the story of the cowardice of the BBC as well as the American attempt to utterly emasculate (wretched connotations, but what can one do) the text. Hoskins brought suit; it was Hoskins whose career was on the line — it was also sheer snobbery on the part of the BBC and American TV company who were embarrassed by his accent. Hoskins could have destroyed himself utterly by suing. Ronald Colman’s career never recovered when he sued, though it’s true the studios were all powerful in the 1940s. Hoskins just was found and discovered and became a know great actor sheerly on the strength of his talent — and of course social abilities too. Mirren came the trained upper middle crowd even if she likes to try to connect herself to gangsters … She wouldn’t had she really been part of such a family.
Here’s Roger Ebert:
Shand is an evil, cruel, sadistic man. But he’s a mass of contradictions, and there are times when we understand him so completely we almost feel affectionate. He’s such a character, such an overcompensating Cockney, sensitive to the slightest affront, able to strike fear in the hearts of killers, but a pushover when his mistress raises her voice to him … He’s an operator. He’s a con man who has muscled his way to the top by knowing exactly how things work and what buttons to push, and now here he is, impotent before this faceless enemy. “The Long Good Friday” tells his story in a rather indirect way, opening with a montage of seemingly unrelated events, held together by a hypnotic music theme.
And Screen Online
For while Hoskins’ Harold Shand’s gangland empire is recognisably in the mould of the notorious Kray brothers’ 1960s reign, his brand of ruthless, thrusting capitalism makes him an archetype, albeit an exaggerated one, for the Thatcher government’s enthusiastic sponsorship of individual enterprise (in a bid for legitimacy, Shand calls his domain the Corporation). This parallel is reinforced by Harold’s choice of London’s then still largely derelict Docklands area for his ambitious business project – anticipating the massive investment that transformed that region during the 1980s.
Like Berg’s Lulu, this is contemporary art, speaking to us today. What then was the difference? Mackenzie and Keefe’s film has a felt moral perspective; the characters display affection, loyalty, tenderness towards those they are bonded with (admittedly only a few); so too Breaking Bad. And neither is misogynistic.
The famous ending of White Heat (1951) where cornered at last, Cagney sets fire to an explosive tank and goes out crying “Top of the world, Ma!”
While his fierce mother’s view of him is a driving force within the character, the most memorable gendered moments are the menacing tensed fights between Cagney and his wife-moll, Virginia Mayo, who seeks to escape him when in his downfall his behavior terrifies her