Harold Shand is a patriot. Fiercely loves his native England. Proudly shows visitors around London. Toasts the Queen. Hates the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Harold’s also the head of London’s East End mob. He’s pugnacious and vicious. When he believes informants are holding out on him, he has them brought to a meat-packing plant, where they are hung upside-down from hooks and punched like the sides of beef in Rocky.
There’s a fascinating blend of flag waver and felon in the English bulldog character created by Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. Comparing his homeland with that of a visiting American Mafiosi, Shand says, “Look what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than the hot dog, know what I mean?”
The intersection of crime and nationalism is the focus of this underrated, low-budget effort. The movie, now largely forgotten, created controversy when it was shot in Great Britain in 1979 because the script pits Shand’s mobster against the terroristic IRA.
Some British political leaders—as well as the film’s original financier, media mogul Lew Grade—deemed it too kindly to the IRA. “They thought it was unpatriotic, disparaging of the British Army and promoting terrorism,” director John Mackenzie told London’s Sunday Independent in 2006. “And Grade was frightened that bombs would go off in his cinema. Crazy.”
Mackenzie admitted that he had some compassion toward Shand’s IRA enemies in the film. “I was not sympathetic to the violence,” he said. “But I was sympathetic to the sense that they are committed people who do something for a cause.”
Release was held up 18 months. The film was re-edited, shelved, and finally sold to a distribution company headed by former Beatle George Harrison. Then, shortly after it hit theaters, Harrison said he regretted backing such a violent movie.
Well, Harrison was a pacifist. Despite the violence—or perhaps because of it—The Long Good Friday can be regarded three decades later as a sharply written, well-acted film with a provocative plotline. And you don’t get the sense today that it glorifies terrorism or makes the IRA look attractive—beyond casting a dashing young actor as that group’s most visible face. More about him later.
The story opens with Shand basking on his houseboat on the Thames, enjoying small talk and Bloody Marys with his wife, Victoria (Helen Mirren). This is a boss on top of his game. He is proud to have kept the underworld peace for a full decade. And now he is aiming to convince a visiting counterpart from New Jersey to invest in a casino project he’s got planned for London’s Docklands.
Suddenly, however, his perfect life is shattered. While his mother attends church on Good Friday, her Rolls Royce is blown up and the chauffeur is killed. Soon after, one of his best men is stabbed to death in a public bath. A bomb (which fails to detonate) is discovered at another of his casinos. Finally, a pub that he owns is firebombed, just as he drives up to eat there.
Someone is after Shand, but who? “What blokes might have an old score to settle with me?” he wonders aloud. “Well there was a few. . . . Nah, they’re all dead.”
The middle part of the movie shows Shand and his gang torturing half of London trying to determine the enemy’s identity. There are some tough scenes to watch, but you’ll admire how Hoskins can shift from charmer to sadist and back again. You’ll also find yourself admiring his nastiest henchman, a thug covered with scars and knife wounds known as Razors—“or as the youth of today call him, the human Spirograph,” Shand notes.
Also worth mention is the great Helen Mirren as Victoria. Mirren accepted the role only when director Mackenzie consented to make her more than the typical moll. She’s amiable, shrewd without being a shrew and able to mollify the monster just by giving him the look that most wives seem to know.
Eventually, Shand discovers that his stalker is the aforementioned IRA. Turns out that his young chief lieutenant has been paying off the group for years—without Shand’s knowledge. It’s the only way, the aide insists, to ensure labor peace among the Irish workers Shand employs.
Fine idea, at least until the bagman in the operation shortchanges the IRA by $5,000. That same night, three of the IRA’s top men are wiped out, leading that group to believe—erroneously—that Shand is behind their deaths. Shand is the last to find out.
“All this anarchy is over five poxy grand?” Shand fumes. “I’ll crush them like beetles.”
But, of course, he cannot. For three decades, starting in 1969, the Provisional IRA waged a paramilitary campaign aimed at ending British rule in Northern Ireland. The English Army couldn’t stop them. Even the toughest of London hoodlums stands no chance. You will, however, enjoy watching Shand try.
HIT: Hoskins is a well-tailored pit bull in what proved to be his breakout role. He’s alternately charismatic and ferocious in a manner that evokes James Cagney in his prime. Stay tuned for the final scene, where the camera focuses on his face for a full two minutes. His shifting of emotions from fury to frustration to helplessness could serve as a teaching moment for any aspiring actor.
Hoskins revealed that he learned from real-life criminals hanging around the set to act more like a Roman emperor than a thug. “They said, ‘Naw, Bob, don’t shout. Remember the man’s dignity.’ They wanted the boss to be a proper boss, not a prat.”
MISS: Between the muddled sound and the rapid-fire Cockney slang, the dialogue in The Long Good Friday is incomprehensible at times to American ears. The film’s producers considered overdubbing Hoskins’ voice for U.S. audiences, but backed off when he threatened to sue. We wouldn’t want that, but English subtitles on the DVD would have helped.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Mr. Hoskins’ character of Harold emerges as an unexpectedly captivating man, even in a movie that concentrates on his savagery. In a scene that shows him rounding up all possible suspects and hanging them, upside-down from meat hooks to interrogate them, Harold still maintains his aplomb. Mr. Hoskins makes the mobster as clever and understandable as he is abhorrent.”—Janet Maslin, New York Times
CASTING CALL: Veteran television actor Anthony Franciosa was cast as the visiting American mob boss. He quit the movie after three days of arguing with the director.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: May warrant a second viewing just to enjoy Hoskins’ performance.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: One poor guy is interrogated while having his buttocks slashed with a knife. Another has his hands nailed to the floor. And another is punched in the face while suspended upside down. So, yeah, we’d say high.
BEST LINE: “No one’s heard nothing?” Harold fumes after pressuring his sources brings no new information on the killings. “That just ain’t natural. It’s like one of them silent, deadly farts. No clue, and then pow, you go cross-eyed.”
PIVOTAL SCENE: After a horrible day of carnage on Good Friday, Shand confronts Jeff, his protégé and the man who has been paying off the IRA behind his back.
“Don’t lie to me,” Shand says. “I can smell your lies. And I can smell something else—your greed and ambition.”
Jeff finally fesses up, insisting that he did it for Shand because without the terrorist group’s tacit support, all of Shand’s empire would come to a standstill. Jeff then says they need to stop the IRA’s revenge campaign.
“Revenge?” Shand shouts. “It’s me who’s gonna take revenge.”
“They’re an army of ants,” Jeff yells back. “You can’t beat them.”
Shand flies into a frenzy. He feels betrayed by his favorite underling and enraged over his disloyalty to Shand’s beloved England. He picks up a broken bottle and stabs Jeff in the neck, slicing his carotid artery. Blood spurts, and Shand realizes what he has done. He embraces Jeff, who dies in his arms.
It’s a shocking outburst. And it’s made better because you get the sense that Shand is as horrified by his own actions as you are.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: That’s 26-year-old Pierce Brosnan making his film debut as an IRA assassin. Brosnan had no scripted dialogue in the movie. He improvised his first-ever on-screen line: “Hi.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Mona Lisa, a 1986 British effort in which Hoskins plays a mobster who can’t regain his former status after a prison stretch. He ends up as a driver for an expensive call girl, creating problems with the local kingpin, played by Michael Caine.
BODY COUNT: Eight.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”