Great British Crime Movies #3: The Long Good Friday
They don't make 'em like this anymore.
Whether you think Get Carter (see last post) is the best post-war British film of its kind, or this is, or that this has to contend with some other movie to take the title, this is one hell of a picture and sits at the very pinnacle of the genre. It's lost little if any of its power since the day it was released, however historically dated the setting may be - the central performances are as compelling as they ever were and the film's many memorable scenes remain...well, memorable.
This is a film very much of its moment. Made in 1979 but released in 1980 it captures perfectly (we're old enough to remember) the beginning of the Thatcher era and the economic revolution that completely transformed London, where it is set. The film's protagonist - Harold Shand, played with great force by the late and much missed Bob Hoskins - is a truly Thatcherite figure, from his obsessive ambition to open up the still largely derelict London riverside to global capital, to his great climactic gangster-entrepreneur patriotic speech about the greatness of Britain and its impending return to glory (with the likes of him leading the way).
Plot: in his mission to build a 'respectable' business empire and regenerate huge swathes of inner London Shand reaches out to mafioso American investors, and spends the long Good Friday wining, dining and persuading them they've done the right thing by getting into bed with him. He controls London through his 'corporation' but is now in league with the really big global boys. But someone has other ideas, and things go badly wrong, roller coaster style...
The film had a massive impact on its release; it was exceptionally gritty, violent and intense for its time, pre-dating the kind of explosive, in-your-face gangster ranting and violence that were to become commonplace a couple of decades later. But nobody ever did it like Hoskins. Where Michael Caine is all understatement and cold fury in Get Carter, here Hoskins is a no-holds-barred force of nature, a rampaging East End Mussolini prepared to do anything to realise his ambitions.
But there is plenty of glamour to go along with the grit, emanating from casinos, swank restaurants, yachts, penthouses and, above all, Helen Mirren. As Harold's woman, and if the truth be known de facto co-head of the corporation, her character Victoria oozes class, composure, cool intelligence - and toughness. The scene, near the end of the film, in which she slows Hoskins' revenge-hungry raging bull down with a shocking double-slap to the top of the head is an all-time classic. And this of course was only the beginning of Dame Helen's contribution to British crime on screen: a little over ten ears later she starred in the groundbreaking TV classic Prime Suspect as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, the first of the uncompromising female Chief Inspectors with whom we have become so familiar since.
There is one other way in which this great film was ahead of its time, you might even say prescient: in 2012 Canary Wharf, occupying the huge expanse of unexploited land on the Isle of Dogs coveted by Harold Shand, overtook the City of London as the biggest employer of financial workers in Europe. And in the summer of that year the London Olympics was staged nearby - in Stratford, of all places. Almost nobody would have believed this could ever happen if you'd told them in 1980. Harold's vision had come to pass...but he was not there to enjoy it, having run out of luck in the film's never-to-be-forgotten final scene. For all these reasons, The Long Good Friday is not only the best London gangster film ever made, but also a great British state-of-the-nation movie.
By the way, we strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a sense of working class life on the Isle of Dogs in the days before the global money took over.