The British gangster film has a bad reputation. Much of this is deserved due to the shoddiness of most of these productions. However, John Mackenzie’s 1980 release The Long Good Friday is seen as one of the genre’s shining stars. Bob Hoskins delivers the performance of his career as Harry Shand, a London gangster looking to go legit with plans to redevelop the crumbling London Docklands. He’s about to close a deal with the American Mafia to raise the capital for his scheme when someone starts killing-off his crew. Can Harry hold it all together and seal the deal to achieve his dreams?
Shot at the tail end of the 1970s before the economic upswing of the 1980s, The Long Good Friday shows the Thatcherite dream of vast wealth through the eyes of a (fictitious) Krays-era gangster. Hoskins’ Shand is a man eager to develop vast wealth, using the remnants of old-London to do so. This isn’t the shiny-new skyscraper lined city that we know now, but a post-war city in need of a second wind. Mackenzie and cinematographer Phil Meheux shoot the city in a loving way, making it a fully-fledged supporting character in the film.
Hoskins is undoubtedly the star of the show, giving Harry Shand a gutsy masculinity with a soft centre. He’s an old-school gangster with a moral code and he can’t fathom why someone is going against the rules and offing his men. Hoskins gives Shand an authenticity that few few actors could deliver. Most actors in the genre are ‘mockney’ but Hoskins is true cockney. Helen Mirren plays his wife Victoria, the woman who keeps Shand on an even emotional keel, while Derek Thompson gives impressive support as his right hand man. Pierce Brosnan also makes his screen debut as a silent but deadly assassin who is taking out Shand’s men.
The Long Good Friday has a great cast but they’re aided by a well-constructed script from Barrie Keefe. It’s a darkly comic piece with some great dialogue and set-pieces that show the grit and determination of Harry Shand. He might want to be a legitimate business man but his heart is still firmly in the glory days of the East-end gangster. An added bonus is Francis Monkman’s energetic score that adds a weight to the onscreen action.
You’ll see a lot of British gangster films but you’ll never see one as good as The Long Good Friday. There’s much to recommend and the film feels as urgent and relative as it did when it was released 40 years ago.