Monday, February 1, 2010

The Long Good Friday (1980)

"For more than ten years there's been peace - everyone to his own patch. We've all had it sweet. I've done every single one of you favours in the past - I've put money in all your pockets. I've treated you well, even when you was out of order, right? Well now there's been an eruption. It's like fuckin' Belfast on a bad night. One of my closest friends is lyin' out there in the freezer. And believe me, all of you, nobody goes home until I find out who done it."

THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY does a great job of taking a relatively simple story and elevating it to a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. Harold Shand, a deeply flawed and violent man with little control over his impulses, has clawed and sacrificed his way to the top of the London underground by sheer dint of hard work and determination. He's sowed peace for ten years between the warring factions, bought councilmen and police detectives, established a corporation with the aim of legitimizing his enterprises. And now he's about to seal the deal of a lifetime, a sweeping real estate venture to revitalize the London docklands in preparation for a 1988 Olympic bid. Here, at the cusp of legitimacy, his powers at a pinnacle, with both the American mob and the European Union looking to finance him, it falls apart -- rapidly and violently -- in less than 48 hours over $5,000 of palmed cash from a suitcase intended for the IRA.

From here THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY could easily have devolved into a simple revenge thriller but it has more ambitious things to say, as a character study, a crime film, an examination of late 70's British values. London was undergoing rapid change at the time. Men like Shand were being pushed out by major corporations in the London interior and immigrant drug dealers in the boroughs, places like Brixton, where Shand has to grit his teeth to bear the changes he sees. Shand is smart, stay with the times, legitimize, get corporate. But his own personal failings lead to his undoing -- trust in the wrong people, an unchecked ego, tendencies toward rapid violence. It's funny, we know all along who the traitors are but not what their motives were. The suspense comes not from the mystery of who did it but why they did it and how Harold is going to salvage it. That the whole thing implodes over $5,000 would almost be laughable if it weren't so believable.

The performances here are across the board sensational. Bob Hoskins owns Harold Shand, filling him with a depth of complex emotion: explosive rage, surprising tenderness, layered guilt, inflated ego, short-sightedness and delusion. It is a masterful performance, particularly in the closing shot of the film where the camera just hangs on Hoskins face as we see him mentally work through the last 36 hours, seeing all mistakes and recognizing all possibilities. There is time for regret, anguish, anger, but no despair. Harold is a man who always knew his end would come from the point of a gun.

Helen Mirren absolutely dazzles as Victoria, a high-class lady slumming with a gangster in the hopes of bringing him up to her level. She is intoxicated by his common roots and extraordinary power. She revels in the touch of class she brings him and knows that the ultimate control of his legitimization lies with her. Only she can handle his extraordinary temper (as evidenced by that amazing scene where he emerges, blood soaked from the boat screaming for vengeance, and she stops him, slapping him fiercely and clutching him tight, wrestling and reasoning him into a more intelligent solution). Her handling of the American mob men is delicate yet powerful. Her rejection of all outward advances by other men is firm. She, like Harold, is not to be fucked with. Mirren reportedly worked hard with the screen writer to ensure that Victoria was an equal partner to Harold, a fully developed character and not a typical gun moll. The film is certainly better for it.

Eddie Constantine gets a lot of flack for his portrayal of Charlie. His acting does seem a bit stiff at first but I actually think it works. Charlie is Mafia gone legit, uncomfortable with the implications of dealing with Harold, who he sees as unable to cope with legitimacy. He is also superstitious. I think Constantine does a great job bringing across Charlie's inherent awkwardness coupled with a corrosive seriousness. Stephen Davis is also fun as Tony, the slimy snake-oil lawyer Charlie brings with him. One of my favorite scenes is Shand's evisceration of Charlie and Tony as cowards: "The Mafia? I've shit 'em." Harold Shand takes shit from no one.

The film is loaded with great British character actors like P.H. Moriarty as "Razors" and David King as "Parky" (it felt like Shand took his head off with that vicious backhand) both of whom deliver impressively in their small but vital roles. Derek Thompson does a great job dealing with Jeff's guilty insecurities, the sense that he doesn't belong in this world because he's smart and easily scared. God, he meets a brutal end. This is one of the grittiest, most violent films I've ever seen. But its not excessive. Not exploitational at all. Each violent act has a purpose to it, a method, a major contribution to the story. That said, at the time, it certainly deserved this rating:

THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (MacKenzie, UK, 1980)


Mark Hodgson, said...

Enjoyed seeing this when it came out. It packed enough shocks in it to outdo many horror films of the time. Indeed, the bloodiest scene seemed to get lenient treatment from the censor for the time.

The smash-up at the racetrack always seems like a contrived way to add action to what was already an exceptional gangster movie. One which many recent Brit-flicks have tried to top.

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