Friday, March 25, 2011

In For a "Long Good Friday"

I get a real kick out of watching films that I was slightly too young to have seen when they premiered, especially when they feature prominent current actors in early performances. It's a little like paging through someone's yearbook, seeing what they looked like before you knew them. "The Long Good Friday," a British gangster film from the late 70s, is a good example. There's Helen Mirren, long before "Prime Suspect" or any of the Elizabeths, playing the steely gun moll Victoria. There's Pierce Brosnan, impossibly young in his first film, as an anonymous assassin. And finally there's Bob Hoskins in the role that launched him to fame, as the mobster kingpin Harold Shand. I first knew Hoskins in big-budget fare like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Hook," but I didn't see any of his British films until much, much later, and always had in image of him in my head as a slightly irascible, but intrinsically lovable everyman. After this movie, that is no longer the case.

Harold Shand is a London mobster at the height of his criminal career, enjoying prosperity, power, and a certain status in his community. He wants to go straight as a legitimate businessman, and is trying to strike a deal with members of the American mafia to back a real estate development project. However, his plans are disrupted by a series of attacks targeted at his closest allies and operations. Many involve bombings, leading one nervous cop on Harold's payroll to suspect the IRA. Harold, however, has more immediate enemies in mind. He turns the London underground upside-down to find those responsible, all the while trying to maintain the illusion for the Americans and himself that everything is under control. But as Harold grows increasingly desperate, he lashes out at those closest to him, including longtime girlfriend Victoria, and his right-hand man Jeff (Derek Thompson).

"The Long Good Friday" is Bob Hoskins' show from start to finish. He gives a tour-de-force performance as Harold, a thuggish gangster who dreams of respectability, but is quick to resort to blunt violence, which proves to be his undoing. A lot of actors can summon brutal menace, and Hoskins brings a great physical element to the role, but few have the charisma and acting chops to really make you love them for their savagery. Harold Shand is a terrible man who does terrible things to everyone around him, but there's such humanity in him you have to sympathize with his plight regardless. In one of the most shocking scenes, he abruptly kills a man with a liquor bottle. But the act of violence is not nearly so affecting as the immediate look of pain and regret on Hoskins' face when he realizes what he's done, or the cold rage that descends on him in the wake of it.

Helen Mirren pairs up well with him as Victoria. Though their relationship is not the focus of the film, I found it one of the more interesting elements in the story. They behave like a married couple, though there is no indication that they are married, and several incidents show that Victoria is at least as important to Howard's criminal organization as any of his lieutenants. She enhances his facade as an intelligent, gracious hostess, but can be counted on to take care of coarser business in a pinch. When Harold erupts, she's the one who doesn't hesitate to confront him, to talk him down and keep him from self-destruction. Yet her formidable strength has its limits. I'm used to seeing wives and girlfriends in mobster movies relegated to domestic purgatory or addiction subplots, so Victoria was a treat.

My knowledge of British film still being woefully limited, director John Mackenzie is not someone I'm familiar with, but he does impressive work here. He gets a lot of exciting stuff to play with, like the bombings and the murders and various other action sequences. But what I really appreciated was how well he situates the story in London, many scenes shot on location and making use of local landmarks. He also gives Bob Hoskins plenty of room to really sell his performance, and deftly accentuates certain moments, perhaps most famously in the film's ending sequence where the frame of the film itself seems to close in on Harold. Barrie Keefe's script is a lot of fun, full of colorful lines that kept catching me off guard. Finally, mention must be made of the jazzy electronica score by Francis Monkman, that really gets the blood pumping and ready for mayhem.

As with many older films, I'm a little surprised that I had never heard of "The Long Good Friday" until now, and that it's not more well-known in the U.S. Any fan of "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" would love this, and Harold Shand is easily Bob Hoskins' most iconic character - well, that I've seen so far. So if you've a yen for mobster movies, seek out and enjoy. And I need to go poke around the rest of Hoskins' filmography and see who else turns up.

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