The Long Good Friday (1979)

The Long Good Friday, considered one of the best British gangster flicks, takes the classic story of hubristic downfall and sets it in late-seventies London. Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a gangland kingpin trying to “go legit” by investing in some shorefront property which will one day host the Olympics. After a trip across the Atlantic to meet with his American gangster counterparts, he brings them back to East London where he hopes to convince them to invest with him in the shorefront property.

That’s when things go wrong: his henchmen start dying and his local haunts get blown up, raising doubt in the Americans about the security of their potential investment. Harold Shand, in an interesting twist, turns from gangster to detective, and ruthlessly investigates all his known associates. Some unforgettable ultra-violence ensues, as he hangs his suspects on meat hooks, stabs his right-hand man in the throat with a broken Scotch bottle, and eventually discovers that it’s all been a misunderstanding. But it’s too late, and he’s in over his head, against the law and against none other than the IRA. Drunk on power and a thirst for revenge, Harold Shand’s arrogance finally proves to be his Achilles heel.

What’s not to like about a gangster flick with a plot like this? It’s also got a classic moll played by Helen Mirren, and a host of other actors who would later go on to become stars in their own right, most notably Pierce Brosnan in a non-speaking role as an IRA hitman. But the problem with The Long Good Friday is that it completely lacks style.

You can fault modern gangster movies for gratuitous stylized flourishes – most notably Ritchie’s overwrought attempts – but here you have a movie that is completely lacking in any style at all. The lighting, the camerawork, and most annoyingly, an atrocious eighties synthesizer soundtrack, seem like they came straight out of an uninspired television movie. What saves The Long Good Friday are two things: Bob Hoskins’ excellent incarnation of a pugnacious and racist gangster boss, saving every scene he is in, no matter how blandly directed. The other thing that saves this movie has to do with a fortuitous premonition.

This was made at the very beginning of the eighties when Margaret Thatcher came into power, ushering in, along with Reagan, the philosophy of unfettered free market liberalism. Harold Shand repeatedly refers to his gang as “The Corporation”, and it’s easy to see him as one step removed from a ruthless CEO in a legitimate corporation. Add to this the specter of terrorism, and you have a movie which resonates with anybody witnessing the 21st century. This universal quality, and some stand-out scenes make this a must-see gangster movie; but, in terms of quality filmmaking, it is nowhere near the best of the genre.

Any gangster movie will inevitably be compared to classics like Mean Streets and The Godfather, two classics from early 70s American cinema. Or perhaps British contenders from around the same time like Get Carter (which has a great soundtrack, by the way). The Long Good Friday can’t hold a blowtorch to any of these. Even in terms of trashy appeal, DePalma’s Scarface trounces The Long Good Friday. I could go on for days trying to pinpoint the exact point at which trashiness becomes aesthetically appealing, but I wouldn’t be able to prove anything. It’s just an intuition I have, which doesn’t really have any logic to back it up. I can just say that close to 30 years after this movie was made, it looks and feels dated — but it’s still worth a watch, if not for Bob Hoskins’ performance, than for what it portends.

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37 Responses to “The Long Good Friday (1979)”

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    Yeah, the direction is flat but so what. Its got a cool bland mood quite common to the cool brit gangster flicks and it works. All in all its my favorite ganster flick, period. And the synth music seals the deal.

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