Reflections on "The Long Good Friday"

Written by Barrie Keeffe

Directed by John Mackenzie

Starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren

A video presentation of this material is available here.

Gangster films may hold a certain fascination and present an intriguing insight into amoral chicanery, corruption and crime, but they rarely evoke sympathy or affection for their main character.

"The Long Good Friday" is an exceptionally fine example of a gangster film which manages to lay bare the potential realities and consequences of underworld activities and schemes while somehow retaining a degree of compassion and understanding for Harold Shand, the London gangland overlord of the film.

Interest and intrigue are created firstly by the format of the narrative - this is not merely an exposition of nefarious activities, but is presented as a mystery thriller. Crimes take place right from the start, aimed largely at damaging Harold's "corporation", though there is no clarity as to responsibility, motive and purpose. The audience is therefore in the same position as Harold, in terms of understanding, as he suffers bewildering and deadly attacks on his property and personnel, establishing a certain affinity from the start as Harold may be seen as a victim.

Harold presents himself as an ambitious, determined businessman with a plan to make it big in property and land development in the run-up to a potential bid for London to host the Olympic Games in 1988. He is keen to involve the "right people" and his friends in his scheme.

It is clear Harold wishes to succeed in legitimate property dealing and development but it is equally clear he is in the habit of using underhand and dubious tactics to achieve such "legitimate" success.

As in many other gangster films, our "hero" makes use of corrupt council and government officials and police officers who are more than willing to accept payment to facilitate whatever scheme Harold has in mind. Unlike other gangster films, however, these characters are developed to some extent, contribute to the film's plot and allow us to see another side of Harold's nature.

Harold is a complex character. He shows enthusiasm, dynamism, care, pain, regret, grief, nostalgia, sociability, loyalty, ambition and pride. He is also capable of acts of callousness, viciousness and brutality. Something of a rough diamond, he aspires to classy trappings and proceedings yet is relatively uncultured but genuine in his sentiments. Above all else, he is human.

His romantic companion is the upper-class Victoria, an intelligent and seemingly well-educated lady who appears to hold Harold in genuine affection and who is happy to nurture and direct Harold in his more legitimate business dealings and events.

For all that, Harold is the victim of deadly bombings and at least two of his "corporation" are killed, leading to his investigation to find and punish those responsible. As he gets more desperate, his thuggish nature comes to the fore and his methods become increasingly violent, from which we may impute just how he attained his exalted position in the London underworld. It is also in these circumstances that we feel the effect of the genius of the script, direction and performance, for despite Harold's vicious and brutal assaults on others, we remain on his side.

Perhaps this is because within this amoral community, each is as bad as the other. Perhaps it is because we feel Harold is being unfairly targeted. Or perhaps it is because we have seen and shared his inner feelings, understand his ambitions and motivations and admire his familial attachment to loyalty. Whatever the reason, we feel he is defending himself and is using methods familiar to and accepted by his colleagues and enemies who all operate by the same rules.

Of course, peace between competing underworld groups will only hold if all are advantaged, and Harold is feeling distinctly disadvantaged. Gradually, the veneer of respectability, diplomacy and working relationships is revealed to be a facade as Harold takes ever more desperate measures to discover who is persecuting him.

Through no fault of his own, and as a result of coincidence and greed on the part of his underlings, Harold now faces the wrath of the IRA. Harold is warned by corrupt policeman Parky and especially his scheming protege Jeff that he cannot deal with the IRA in the same way as he might deal with underworld competitors because they are political, are fighting for a cause and will not adhere to the accepted rules of underworld behaviour. This slight to his ego, combined with an unaccustomed sense of powerlessness and desperation to uphold his position, push him over the edge and, in a rage, he kills Jeff and goes on to try to deal with the IRA in the only way he knows how, by extreme violence.

In the end, Harold pays the ultimate price for his blinkered vision and too late realises the limits of his strong-arm approach based on intimidation against an enemy not motivated by mere greed and personal advancement.

What makes this film so compelling is not the comeuppance of a vicious gangland thug, it's the fact that the clever script and direction build a picture of a very human and likeable gangster under siege and we have sympathy, even a certain affection, for him despite his awful deeds. A considerable achievement.

Bob Hoskins brings Harold Shand to dynamic life and we share his incomprehension, his loss, his fervour and his determination. Without the element of engagement and empathy he brings to the role, with the able support of his co-stars, this would have been a good but relatively ordinary gangster film, but instead it is transformed into a character piece of extraordinary power. Mr Hoskins may have produced many equally admirable performances, but I'm not sure he ever had a role that was more memorable.

Altogether, this is a fast-paced and emotionally engaging thriller made with vitality and verve, and special mention should be made of the catchy, dynamic and oh-so memorable music by Francis Monkman.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be reached at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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