British film director John “Frenzy” Mackenzie directed another of my recommendations, Unman, Wittering and Zigo, but will be best remembered for the thrilling, brutal gangster classic, The Long Good Friday.
Many American viewers struggle with the opening scenes of this 1980 film because the slang comes fast and some of the Cockney accents are thick. Also, the film’s only significant flaw is that its opening scenes are confusing as characters and plot elements are thrown at the viewer one after the other in overly rapid succession. (Indeed, even at the end, as with The Big Sleep, it is hard to tie up every loose end in your mind).
But you will forget all that the moment that Bob Hoskins arrives — or rather, explodes — onto the scene accompanied by Francis Monkman’s pulsating score. As mobster Harold Shand, Hoskins dominates his scenes, projecting power, ambition and the ever-present threat of violence. And he’s far more interesting than the typical mobster in that he fantasizes about being a captain of legitimate industry. Seeing his speech about the planned development of the Canary Wharf area as his boat moves down the Thames, his head framed perfectly by the Tower Bridge in the background, is like watching James Cagney play Margaret Thatcher.
The other thing that makes Harold interesting is that his gun moll is no dim-witted tart, even though her part was written that way in the original script. Helen Mirren is at her very best as the smarter, classier half of the criminal couple at the center of the movie. Thankfully the filmmakers realized that casting Mirren just for her looks would have been a gross under utilization of her intelligence and acting skills. She has a meaty, fascinating part and she makes the most of it.
As the film opens, Harold is trying to launch a legitimate business empire but is thwarted when his criminal empire suddenly comes under attack. But by whom? He has already killed everyone who could take him on, right? Or has he somehow created a powerful new enemy?
This is the best British gangster film since Get Carter and it’s even better the second time through once you understand the labyrinthine plot. Note for trivia fans: this was Pierce Brosnan’s first film – he had no lines and didn’t even meet the stars (He’s looking at the camera in the back seat, not Hoskins, in those knockout final scenes).
p.s. Like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, this film only made it to theaters through the support of rock legend George Harrison!