When lists are made of the greatest fictional gangsters of all time, you will always see names like Tony Soprano, Tony Montana or Michael & Vito Corleone. However, one name that often gets neglected from these lists is Harold Shand from The Long Good Friday. This is one movie gangster that should definitely get more recognition because, as Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of this film: “I have rarely seen a movie character so completely alive”. Gangster stories love to chronicle their protagonist’s rise to the top and their eventual downfall, but The Long Good Friday is unique in that it introduces a very powerful gangster who is on the verge of achieving his greatest success, but then has his entire life go straight to hell within the span of only two days. British gangster stories have become extremely popular in North America within fifteen years, thanks largely to the films of Guy Ritchie, but The Long Good Friday is considered by many to be the greatest gangster film to ever come out of that country. It even placed 21st on the British Film Institute’s list of the top 100 British films of the century. However, even though the film has garnered great acclaim from those who have actually seen it, it seems that whenever I browse lists of the all-time greatest gangster films, The Long Good Friday rarely seems to be on them. In spite of starring two big-name British actors, the film remains fairly underrated in North America and deserves to be more widely seen by fans of the genre. On paper, this may not seem like a gangster film that breaks any new ground, but it more than makes up for that with its intelligence, style and pure energy.
At the beginning of The Long Good Friday, Cockney gangster Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) seems to be the undisputed crime kingpin of London. There have been ten years of peace within the city’s criminal underworld since Harold has such a firm rule over everyone, and he also has important cops and politicians in his back pocket. He seems to have a good relationship with his mistress, Victoria (Helen Mirren), and is on the verge of completing a very lucrative real-estate deal with the American mafia, which will set Harold on the path to becoming a legitimate businessman and garner him more wealth and power than he ever dreamed of. On Good Friday, Charlie Restivo (Eddie Constantine), a representative of the American mafia, arrives in London to complete the deal with Harold and everything seems to going just perfectly. However, Harold’s ideal world is soon shattered with one disaster after another. His closest friends is stabbed to death, one of his bodyguards is killed in a car bombing, and two more bombing attempts are made on businesses he owns. Harold is absolutely enraged that after ten years of peace, someone would make such a brash attempt at trying to destroy his organization. Even worse, these chaotic incidents wind up undermining Harold’s credibility in front of the American mafia and have the potential to destroy their business deal. Harold and his associates quickly respond by going on a rampage through the London underworld in effort to find out who has started a war with them.
For its first ten minutes or so, The Long Good Friday does not seem like the easiest film to get into. It presents a series of random scenes to the audience without much explanation of what’s going on and viewers may find themselves a little confused. However, once the film gets going and you start to understand what the story is really about, you realize that you are in the presence of high-quality filmmaking. As the plot begins to unfold and more information is gradually revealed, you have no doubt that everything’s going to come together and that all the events you witnessed during the first ten minutes will make perfect sense within the context of the story. Indeed, The Long Good Friday becomes a very interesting study of how everything can wrong for a very successful person in a very short amount of time. Since this is a gangster story that focuses less on his rise and more on his fall, Harold Shand comes off as a surprisingly sympathetic character. Yes, Harold is a very ruthless and powerful criminal and it’s obvious that he had to do a lot of terrible things to get where he is, but since the movie never shows that side of the story, you can’t help but feel bad for him when his life starts to unravel. Even when Harold is shown committing brutal acts of violence, they almost feel justified since he is on the verge of having everything he worked so hard to achieve destroyed. While most movie gangsters are usually to blame for their own self-destruction, for the most part, Harold really isn’t at fault for a lot of the bad things that happen to him. Of course, Harold would probably not be such an interesting character were it not for the magnificent performance of Bob Hoskins in the role. Hoskins had a very steady career working mainly on British television up until this point, but The Long Good Friday catapulted him to stardom. Hoskins just oozes charisma every time he’s onscreen, and finds the perfect balance between being charming and likable at times, but absolutely ferocious and terrifying when he’s on the edge. Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay is just filled with wonderfully colourful Cockney dialogue, which Hoskins delivers with amazing gusto.
Of course, Hoskins is ably supported by a typically great performance from Helen Mirren, who does not play a stereotypical dim-witted gangster’s moll, but instead brings a refreshing amount of dignity and intelligence to the character of Victoria. You get the impression that Harold would probably not be as successful as he is without her providing some balance in his life. In addition, The Long Good Friday also features the film debut of a young Pierce Brosnan, who only gets about three minutes of screen time (with his only line of dialogue being “Hi”), but still has a major impact on the story. The film’s final scene is masterfully done and features one of the more memorable closing shots in cinema history with Bob Hoskins telling us everything we need to know about his character through a wide gamut of expressions on his face. The release of The Long Good Friday was a bit of tumultuous one as it was completed in 1979, but went through numerous delays. It did not get released into British theatres until November of 1980 and didn’t secure distribution in North America until 1982. Believe it or not, the original producers of the film thought that Bob Hoskins’ Cockney accent was too thick for North American audiences to understand and actually hired hire another actor to dub over his dialogue until Hoskins threatened a major lawsuit! Anyway, The Long Good Friday finally did get released with Hoskins’ original voice intact and garnered a lot of praise from those who saw it. However, in 2007, an announcement was made about a planned remake of The Long Good Friday, which would take place in Miami instead of London and was going to be directed by (are you ready for this?) Paul W.S. Anderson! Thankfully, this ill-advised project has pretty much been stuck in limbo for the past several years, preventing the man behind Alien vs. Predator and the Resident Evil films from getting his hands on this material. The Long Good Friday is a British gangster film, pure and simple, and would just not work as well if adapted to an American setting. While the film has never achieved the same amount of popularity in North America that it did in Britain, fans of Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and gangster films in general are well-advised to check it out.