Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Long Good Friday

This is my contribution to the Mob-a-thon going on today over at The Boob Tubers.

Like the best gangster movies, The Long Good Friday succeeds at sending a message to the people in power. It succeeded so well that Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet hated the film outright. In 1980, at the height of the “Irish troubles,” came a film about a prosperous London thug and his attempts to ally with the Mafia, only to accidentally cross paths with an unstoppable IRA. And the implication is that the British army doesn’t stand a chance.

Bob Hoskins, one of my favorite actors, stars as Harold Shand, a prosperous gangster who fancies himself an entrepreneur. He’s also a patriot. He’s got a deal going with the Mafia to provide funding for a property development that isn’t just a moneymaking scheme; it’s also being done to provide Londoners with homes. Harold is a proto-yuppie: he’s greedy, he’s nouveau riche, and his taste is tacky. He worries about making it and being able to show it off. But he doesn’t realize just what a precarious position he’s in. One of his men has crossed the IRA and stolen some money, and they want their money back. And Harold, proud British man that he is, refuses to cave into them. And all of this plays out over a long Easter weekend while a visiting Mafioso is in town trying to decide whether to commit to the deal.

Couched in this drama is the fact that Harold personifies Thatcherite values. He’s self-made, he’s worked for what he has, and he’s proud enough to show off a bit. But he’s also come to think of himself as a little invincible, and doesn’t even imagine that someone could come along to ruin it all. Embroiled in a turf war, he’s forced into a situation he doesn’t want, but is determined to come out of it his way—and doesn’t imagine that there’s any other way it could go.

This film is, as director John Mackenzie described it, is “just a damn good gangster movie.” Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay is the kind that should be taught in writing classes. Besides the overarching metaphor—that the Thatcherite British can’t rely on American help and are overconfident in the face of an IRA that will overwhelm them—Keeffe creates sympathetic, rounded characters. Harold’s grief at the loss of one his friends and right hand men is genuine and powerful. His immediate feeling for revenge is personal; he doesn’t want the killers dead because they’ve hit the organization, but because they took away his oldest friend. Jeff’s other lieutenants, Jeff (Derek Thompson) and Razors (P.H. Moriarty) aren’t just caricatures. They’re not Harold’s heavies, they’re his friends. Harold’s wife is played by Helen Mirren with a deft touch, trying to keep it all together and making sure her loyalties are intact, even if she has to suffer to do it.

But the heart of the film is Bob Hoskins’s fantastic performance. As the film starts, he’s like any other businessman. As it unfolds, his frustrations and his emotions force him into more and more shockingly brutal acts. As he tries to keep it together, he gets more and more cocky, but he also gets more and more desperate. “I’ll have his carcass,” he hisses, oozing hatred, “dripping by midnight.” He goes from witty, good-natured and optimistic to bloody promises and extreme violence, even against the people he loves, in the shortest of leaps. He’s pompous, yes, but he’s a genuine, complex, recognizably human character; out of his depth, and he doesn’t even realize it.

The final scene is astounding. This is one of those movies that leads to one great moment in the history of cinema. Bob Hoskins in the back of a car, in almost unbroken close-up, comes too late to a horrible realization. He goes through every stage of grief at once, every emotion, from shock to sarcasm to humor to fear to…something ambivalent. Is it rueful acceptance? Is it fearful anticipation? You must see it for yourself and discover it. It’s one of the greatest performances in history, in one of the best films ever made.

Some people have the last five minutes of the movie up on YouTube, and it's just the most incredible five minutes. I'm so tempted to post it here, but I don't want to rob anyone of one of cinema's perfect endings and one of the best bits of acting I've ever seen. So here's the trailer instead:

3 comments:

Johnny Yen said...

Great call on that one! I saw it at a local art theater when I first got out of college, in 1986. I own the Criterion version of the DVD. Bob Hoskins is amazing. And don't forget Helen Mirren.

This is the movie Godfather III should have been-- a mob boss trying to go legit, but past sins catch up with him.

Did you catch that Pierce Brosnan is the IRA assasin?

Dr. Zaius said...

What a great post! I love this movie. I didn't know Maggie didn't like it!

SamuraiFrog said...

Johnny: I still don't own the DVD, but the more times I see this, the more certain I am it's one of my favorite movies. And I could never, ever forget Helen Mirren.

Funny you mention Pierce Brosnan. I just finally got Becca to sit down and watch this movie, and all she could talk about was how creepy Pierce Brosnan was in the movie. Seriously, I think he made her uncomfortable.

Dr. Zaius: On the other hand, what didn't Maggie hate?