Saturday, 26 April 2014

Opportunities… The Long Good Friday (1979)

Made in 1979 this prescient film contained a number of themes that would define the decade to follow: docklands redevelopment, bad money made good, ambition and greed… all very appropriate for a film made during Margaret Thatcher’s election year. The times they were indeed a-changing and The Long Good Friday is clearly not convinced that this will be for the better.

London’s docklands were falling to ruin and clearly there was an opportunity to develop this vast area and there is even a bid being discussed for the 1988 Olympics… 30-odd years’ later we’ve had the enormous success of 2012 and the docklands are like a new city within a city from Canary Wharf to the Olympic Village and over to Excel: mile after mile of new buildings… I wonder who paid for them all?

Bob Hoskins
Here, Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) sees his opportunity to invest the ill-gottens of his criminal firm in legitimate business and espouses plenty of Thatcherite rhetoric in support of this. He’s keen to bring in some heavy American friends, Charlie (Eddie Constantine), to help fund ambitious building plans and even has a “friendly” council man, Harris (Bryan Marshall) to help grease the wheels of planning permission. It seems that nothing can stop him as he strides like the cock of the walk after landing from New York on Concorde (perhaps the ultimate symbol of go-ahead and get-on Britain?).

St Katharine Docks and Harold's boat
Harold runs a large swathe of London’s gangland and has his own peculiar set of principles: he believes in free enterprise, opportunity and being able to decide the limits of your own personal liberty. He lives on a flash yacht moored just off St Katherine Docks – one of the first to be gentrified – and all around you can see the spaces he wants to fill with yuppie flats, office high-rises, restaurants and gym clubs.

Helen Mirren
Harold’s partner is Victoria (Helen Mirren) a well brought-up woman possibly attracted to Harold’s no-nonsense application of the kind of power she was born to… She smooths his rough edges and provides the social polish crucial to the legitimisation of Harold. Before the great and the not-so-good are to arrive for their project launch party, she speaks to their French chef and ensures that everything has that suitable veneer of class.

She’s aided by Harold’s smart number two, Jeff (Derek Thompson), like Victoria, a cut above Harold’s more usual associates, a thinker not a fighter.

The party starts and the guests are treated to a rousing speech from Harold as the boat passes under Tower Bridge: this is the land of opportunity and London is destined to be the capital of Europe!

Harold talks and everyone listens...
But… it’s not to be so simple. The film opens with a confusing series of shots: a man taking a handful of notes from a suitcase, men waiting in a remotes farmhouse, a gay pick-up in a pub and the bodies of two men being dumped at the side of a country lane as the men in the farm are machine-gunned down: something’s very wrong and we’ll spend most of the film trying to work out what.

Harold seems a world away from all this but he’s about to get sucked into a situation he can’t understand: the car that was taking his mother to church is blown up and then he learns that his oldest confederate Colin (Paul Freeman) has been murdered in a swimming baths (by a young Pierce Brosnan no less: sent to lure the gay man to his doom).

Harold is outraged: it’s a “diabolical liberty” his words failing to give full vent to the full depth of his shock. These are personal attacks on his family and closest friends, not to mention his business interests (an unexploded bomb is found in his casino). He cannot think of anyone who would or could do this and sends his men off to find the culprits… he must keep a lid on this for fear of scaring off his investors.

But his unseen enemy is resourceful and remorseless planting a bomb in his favourite pub that explodes just seconds before he arrives with his American guests for lunch.

He gathers his lieutenants and sends them to round up all of the gang leaders in London: someone must know something. The men are herded into a cold-storage for the film’s iconic scene of upside-down hoods hanging alongside bloody carcasses in cold-storage units.

But there’s worse news as Harold’s pet CID officer, Parky (Dave King) reveals that the bombs are of Irish construction. Things are getting out of control and Special Branch is going to have to take over… but Harold views the IRA as just another gang trying to muscle into his action and sets out to deal with them appropriately.

Granite-faced Charlie dines with Victoria
Meanwhile Victoria wines and dines the Americans (in Quaglinos?) and is forced to reveal the actuality as Harris gets blotto and reveals something about a most unexpected character… This runs far deeper and closer to home than Harold could ever guess and as the tension mounts the violence increases to an almost unbearable degree…

John Mackenzie directs with aplomb and creates a genuine modern classic British gangster film that did for the 80s what Get Carter did for the previous decade: it’s believable and stylish.

Mirren and Hoskins tag team to great effect showcasing two differing schools of acting that feed very well of each other. Bob’s raw power and instinct is matched by Helen’s more polished technique as she responds to his prompting to create some memorable improvisations: slapping him back to focus after yet another death and collapsing into tears after finally being pushed too hard by his bulldog spirit.

Mirren persuaded the Director to re-write her part on the fly, arguing that the original “bimbo” role wasn’t realistic for a man of Harold’s immense native intelligence. The results are superb and add balance and humanity to Harold’s role: in spite of all the brutality we do care in the end and even if we don’t want to live in this world, they make the visit a more valuable one than it could have been.

Special mention should also go to the superb soundtrack from Francis Monkman which perfectly matches the brutal modernism with driving synthesisers and stabbing, percussive aggression rarely seen in his time with Sky and more akin to the glory days of Curved Air his first band. Curved Air always had more of an edge than most progressive bands and Monkman’s classical training was accompanied by his ability to write memorable tunes and also to rock. The soundtrack is rightly collectable and one of the gems of the era.

Dusty verdict: A genuine classic that I have immediately purchased from Amazon in a two disc version with added soundtrack CD: how could I have lived without it for so long?

The Long Good Friday was recently ranked 21st in the BFI’s list of greatest British films. So many of the ingredients are so well balanced yet perhaps we also keep on returning to its powerful reminder of Britain’s time on the cusp: when the fading dreams of post-war continuous improvement were overtaken by the brutalities of market economics, social engineering and the growth of our greed culture.

This is nowhere more exemplified than Harold’s closing rant to his American friends… all the British myths are shouted forth and yet all sound increasingly hollow: the times had already changed.

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