The Long Good Friday (25th Anniversary Edition) Review
Harold Shand is a successful entrepreneur. He manages a large and profitable business empire, owning many pubs, clubs and casinos. He is man of vision who sees a future ripe for exploitation by good businessmen such as himself, especially in partnership with America. Plans are afoot for an Olympic stadium to be built in the heart of London's docklands as part of the regeneration of Britain that will be undertaken by the new Thatcher government during the eighties - the decade of opportunity. Harold has a beautiful girlfriend, scores of loyal workers and contacts in government, law enforcement and big business. Everything should be on the up, but there's a problem. Someone doesn't want Harold to stay at the top, and they are undermining his entire empire with a campaign of terror and murder that takes place over the Easter weekend, beginning on one bright, peaceful Good Friday.
John Mackenzie's riveting thriller The Long Good Friday shows how Harold, a gangland kingpin who sees himself as a respectable businessman, is embroiled in violence just as he is about to complete a multi-million dollar deal with the American Mafia. Beginning with apparently unconnected events, we see how a campaign to take over Harold's empire comes together over the course of 48 hours, despite his own terrifying efforts to stop the rot.
The film is tense and exciting, maintaining a headlong pace from the start and propelled by Francis Monkman’s pounding score. Mackenzie and writer Barrie Keefe deliberately use an elliptical structure which forces us into the same position as Harold, having to play catch-up and only piecing everything together at the end. Mackenzie’s direction is taut and brutal but he takes care to emphasise moments of tenderness and reflection as well as scenes of violence. Squeamish viewers are unlikely to forget the broken glass stabbed into the throat or the carving inflicted on a flunky’s backside, but if they care to look further they will see that the brutality is relatively sparse and it’s as much the sense of dread and anticipation as the on-screen gore which makes them memorable. Take, for example, the famous sequence when Harold drags in half of London’s criminal element and hangs them upside down in a meat freezer. Not much happens but the threat is there and we wince at the thought of what someone like Harold could do if he were sufficiently provoked.
Harold is a fantastic leading character; complex, intelligent, witty and terrifying. But it is unthinkable that anyone but Bob Hoskins could have played him.. Looking like a particularly pugnacious bulldog, he strides into the film after the first five minutes, accompanied by the unforgettable main theme and immediately makes it his own. Hoskins shows how a man whose bark and bite are equally fearsome can be undone by the violence he has strived to keep in check. Hoskins makes Shand a complex character, in some ways a dyed in the wool villain but also a visionary and - the suggestion is intentional - a good Thatcherite man of business and private enterprise. Indeed, Harold is the kind of free-market idealist that the Prime Minister would thoroughly approve of and given that the film was written and directed by committed anti-Tories, there has to be some considerable irony in that. He's a considerate boss to his fiercely loyal taskforce, but when roused he is like a one-man apocalypse. Given some of the best dialogue ever written for a gangster film, Hoskins takes this role and runs with it; it's a star-making performance if ever there was one. He isn't afraid to show the confused human being behind the front he puts on for his audience, and his silences are as eloquent as his lengthy rants. There are several vital non-verbal scenes here and the film ends with the best of them; a long, wordless close-up of Harold’s face as we leave him to his fate. Hoskins is so good that we can see the thoughts as they run through his head.
The film clearly belongs to Hoskins but it’s not a one-man show. As with Get Carter, there’s a vivid sense of a whole criminal world operating just beneath our gaze and filled with characters who you wouldn’t want to meet but who are as fascinating as the denizens of a snake pit. Barrie Keefe makes them types – bent copper, smarmy politician, suave Mafiosi – but the actors fill in the gaps and some of them, notably Dave King and Eddie Constantine, have a great deal of style. British crime fans will be pleased to note the appearance of the likes of Alan Ford and P.H. Moriarty in the cast list. The film also launched several careers, notably those of Derek Thompson - now seemingly stuck in Casualty forever - and Pierce Brosnan.
Best of all the supporting cast, however, is Helen Mirren. Given a script in which she was a dizzy blonde gangsters moll, Mirren teased a character out of nothing and Victoria comes across in an entirely believable manner; tough, sexy and, ultimately, rather sad. She and Hoskins pull off an incredibly difficult scene in which she has to break down and he has to control his own impending disintegration long enough to look after her.
One of the best gangster films ever made, and a British crime classic matched only by Get Carter, a film which is rather less conventional than this one, "The Long Good Friday" contains so many memorable scenes that it's hard to pick out one or two. But the famous concluding scene where Harold verbally savages the two Americans is both a hilarious comic set-piece and a showcase for Hoskins at his patriotically wounded best – “Mafia? I’ve shit ‘em!” he says, departing on a wave of nationalistic sentiment so strong that you can almost hear “Rule Britannia” playing in the background. Barrie Keeffe's script is full of great lines – “You don’t go crucifying people outside a church, not on Good Friday” - and the conspiracy plot is quite beautifully structured. John Mackenzie keeps the film moving at a fast pace, while always giving time and space for his actors to make an impact. The violence in the film is moderate by modern standards, but several moments still shock, notably an impromptu backside carving and a horrible throat slashing with a whiskey bottle.
However, the story of the film is nearly as dramatic as the events it depicts. Made in 1979 for Lew Grade's ITC, it was considered too violent and politically sensitive, especially the involvement of terrorist groups, so it was buried. There was then talk of ITV showing the film in an emasculated form, with the swearing and violence severely toned down and twenty minutes slashed out. Luckily, it received so much acclaim at the 1980 London Film Festival that Hand Made Films - previously the saviours of "Life Of Brian" - took the film on and gave it a wide release. It never fails to amaze me that a film as good as this was nearly turned into a bland TV movie.
This is the third time that Anchor Bay has released The Long Good Friday on DVD in the UK and, on this occasion, it’s a three-disc special edition in a metal case. The third disc, incidentally, is the original soundtrack recording and a very fine CD it is too.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 picture is something of a disappointment. I haven’t seen the recent Region 1 ‘Explosive Edition’ but according to a friendly correspondent, it blows this version out of the water. The picture on this R2 DVD is somewhat dull and flat with an excessive level of grain throughout. Colours are natural, if subdued, and artifacting is occasionally visible. I have to agree with other reviewers that this isn’t an improvement on the 2002 R2 release and I think, on the whole, I prefer the Criterion transfer from the late 1990s.
As for the three soundtracks, the only one worth your time – as so often with Anchor Bay – is the Dolby 2.0 track which sounds absolutely fine with exceptionally good music. The 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround remixes are a waste of time, messing with the elements to simulate surround sound and remaining an unsatisfactory, out-of-kilter experience.
The first disc contains a good commentary track with John Mackenzie which is identical to the one featured on the previous R2 release. Mackenzie is a compelling, quiet speaker and he has a lot to say about this, his first hit film. The second disc features the rest of the extra features. We get a very good fifty minute documentary, “A Bloody Business” which details the making of the film in considerable detail with plenty of interviews from cast and crew – Helen Mirren is especially interesting in her observations about how she had to build up her role on the set. Both the UK and the US theatrical trailers are present - the latter trading heavily on voiceover man and critical quotes – along with a ‘Cockney Slang Glossary” which has been expurgated since 1980 for the tender sensibilities of anyone who didn’t want to know that ‘ponce’ is derogatory slang for a homosexual. The poster and stills gallery is small but pleasant enough, containing some lobby cards and original posters, and the screenplay for the film can be accessed via DVD-ROM.
However, please note that the excellent NFT interview with Hoskins and Mackenzie is not on this release, despite it being advertised on the back cover. As this was present on the original R2, I can’t imagine where it’s got to but it is not on the disc so don’t go looking for it. Anchor Bay should know better than to list extra features which aren’t present on the disc.
The package also contains a nice booklet which features film notes and biographies. Regrettably, there are no subtitles included on the disc.
Although the making-of documentary is a good one, that's the only significant addition to the previous disc and, given that the picture quality isn't noticeably improved, only die-hard fans of the film will find this worth an upgrade.