British Bulldog: John MacKenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) – Blu-ray review
The British gangster film’s finest 24-or-so hours – a model in how to localise movie mythmaking through homegrown bloody-mindedness.
The Long Good Friday
(John MacKenzie, 1980)
The American gangster film has long held ambitions to mythic status. Even when it’s purportedly critiquing the American dream, there’s such glamour and scope to its parable that it can’t help but become aspirational. British cinema doesn’t work in quite the same way and The Long Good Friday is its down-to-earth mirror image: vulgar, flinty and politicised.
The irony, of course, is that Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) fancies himself as an American-style entrepreneur. That’s why he’s invited the Yanks over to do a business deal that see him extend his Docklands empire into property as the Eighties begins. The only catch: the mysterious spate of killings and bombings on his patch. Someone is out to get Harold and he doesn’t know who.
John MacKenzei’s thriller has two great assets. The first is the screenplay by Barrie Keeffe, a tightly wound conspiracy thriller than is also one of the most prescient narratives about British society ever filmed. Made on the eve of the 1980s, the film astutely recognises the incoming Thatcherite era of free trade, with finance eclipsing manufacturing and a new breed of gangster emerging. Shand even calls his criminal organisation a ‘corporation,’ even though it’s populated by guys like Razors, a heavy with a huge scar across his face. And then there’s the identity of his nemeses: an inspired touch that remains pertinent today in its message that there’s no point going legit if somebody else is playing by different rules.
The social comment and subtext never neuters the action, but is perfectly integrated through the character of Shand. He’s at once a throwback to the Golden Age of 1930s gangster flicks, a little caesar railing at the world, but the film’s merciless skewering of the shifting foundations of ‘self-made men’ anticipates the remake of Scarface. But this is a particularly British satire, with the characters crassly talking about their conspicuous consumption but remaining petty-minded and xenophobic.
Yet the brio is undeniable and that’s largely down to Bob Hoskins, the film’s other great asset. With little backstory, Hoskins successfully makes you think you’ve seen the full rise and fall of a character even though we’re only witnessing the fall over the titular day-plus-change (the literalism of the timeframe, incidentally, just about excuses the title’s terrible pun). It’s a performance to savour, the flickers of self-doubt and the bulldog snarl all part of the same bite-or-be-bitten psychology, leading to the close-up triumph of the film’s finale.
It’d be difficult to screw the film up given the combo of Keeffe’s script and Hoskins’ performance, but kudos to MacKenzie for creating such a vivid world. This is a film whose command of place is exemplary; it is one of the definitive London films, with the authenticity of the place enabling MacKenzie to find the pace through carefully located tracking shots rather than cartoonish excess.
The supporting cast, too, is a treasure trove: Helen Mirren subverts the gangster’s moll role with no-nonsense intelligence, while the hoodlums are often picked off the street – a lesson not wasted on Guy Ritchie, who practically used The Long Good Friday in lieu of a casting director during his early career. It’s another mark of the film’s prescience that scarcely a scene goes by without you spotting someone well before they achieved fame in their own right, not least a certain Pierce Brosnan in a small but key role.