Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Long Good Friday (1979)

It might not have quite the iconic value of Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges, 1971) or the brash energy of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (d. Guy Ritchie, 1998), but for many The Long Good Friday represents the high-water mark of the British gangster film, its reputation resting not just on a startling central performance from Bob Hoskins, but on its near-prophetic illustration of emerging 1980s values.

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.

Harold is a truly monstrous figure: a corrupt political player with senior policemen and politicians on his payroll, a brutal overlord who responds to the unknown threat to his empire - in one of the film's most memorable scenes - by suspending rival gang bosses upside down on meathooks in an abbatoir, and who, faced with the betrayal of right-hand man (and surrogate son) Jeff, enacts revenge with ferocious violence. Yet in his fall, thanks to Hoskins' flawless playing, he becomes almost a tragic 'great man' of Shakespearean proportions. The increasingly wanton destruction enveloping him leaves him panicked and bewildered, and in the tender moments he shares with girlfriend Victoria we see a vulnerable, reduced and strangely pitiable Harold.

As Victoria, Helen Mirren is every inch Hoskins' equal, transforming the passive gangster's moll of genre convention (Mirren demanded extensive rewrites of the character) into a genuine power behind the throne - a tough, shrewd negotiator with equal and absolute commitment to the cause, whose ingenuity and resourcefulness crucially balance Harold's ruthlessness and discipline.

Originally funded by Lew Grade's Black Lion Films, The Long Good Friday fell into the lap of Handmade Films when Grade, who had taken exception to the IRA plotline, ordered his own re-cut for television, which added up to what producer Barry Hanson called "about 75 minutes of film that was literal nonsense". Handmade's outlay was some £200,000 less than the film's production cost, an investment that was handsomely repaid.

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