Think of a classic gangster film. If The Godfather, or perhaps its sequel, or maybe even Goodfellas crosses your mind, you wouldn’t be wrong in judging those as the genre’s giddy apexes – but if you look to the other side of the Atlantic, then you’ll find something far more insidious and dark, gnarling its teeth at any shred of light that dares trespass its unholy gaze. That would be 1980’s The Long Good Friday, which is being rereleased in UK cinemas this weekend.
Welcome to Bob Hoskins’ face, a minefield of nervous ticks and tiny, nuanced expressions that Harold Shand has learned to perfect in his particular line of work. His field of expertise? A personal rebranding of London; Shand is a devoted overseer of his beloved capital’s transformation from grimy legend to up-and-coming business metropolis, with his loving wife Victora (Helen Mirren) by his side. He just happens to be the kingpin of a gangster organisation. On an especially important day that would see Shand make a giant step from the shadows and into the warm light of legit business (well, almost legit), a murder takes place that puts a halt to him closing on his deal. Having enjoyed prosperity in peace and quiet and suffering no rivals from his pedestal, for the first time in many years Shand is being targeted by a mysterious syndicate intent on demolishing his empire – with their crosshairs saving Shand himself for last.
Part of The Long Good Friday‘s genius is that its events unfold in real time, and we remain almost as clueless about these hidden antagonists as Harold is. As a result, we’re made to really care about him, regardless of his notoriety, regardless of his extremely violent outbursts, and regardless that he got to the top thanks to a career riddled with inexcusable deeds. But watching this great man fail, in the most epic ways possible, is to watch Hoskins at his very best, and his extraordinary performance here actually acts as the narrative impetus of the piece. But Shand always seems a minute or two late; his agitators are always multiple steps ahead of him. Slightly closer on the intellect front is Helen Mirren as Victoria, a blazing emblem of femininity rising as high as Hoskin’s snarl-mouthed, testosterone-bleached hulk. Her poise keeps us balanced in the male-dominated landscape of this suitably grimy London, still screaming as it’s pulled halfway from brick-and-mortar doldrums to skyscraping excess. The Long Good Friday opens the city wide enough for us to get a peek inside, and it ain’t pretty.
Shand, his compromises continuing to rack up, finds himself a proud bulldog cornered, backing toward oblivion but with his tail anywhere but between his legs. His closing monologue is still harshly relevant today, spewing Britishness all over the rug and wallpaper, his proud words advertising everything that’s right and wrong with such eager patriotism. For those of you who have had the pleasure of seeing this exquisite, thrilling British gangster flick already, you may already know what happens next – but it remains shocking to this day.
The Long Good Friday is rereleased in UK cinemas this weekend.