Harold Shand, the London crime boss at the center of The Long Good Friday, is more than an antihero. He’s the Antichrist, uniting bourgeoisie and barbarians in a simultaneous Pax and Pox Brittanica. With the “legitimate” help of cops and city councilors, Shand controls a criminal empire built on every vice except narcotics. His gun moll is a vision of class, aptly named Victoria; you can’t tell whether she’s joking or for real when she says she played lacrosse with Princess Anne. In this feverish 1979 thriller, Shand plans to buy up moribund London dockyards and redevelop them for the 1988 Olympics. His call for a “new London” wickedly echoes the Christian call for a “new Jerusalem.” Yet on the very Good Friday that Shand meets with an American Mafia chief to seal a financial partnership, somebody kills two ofhis right-hand men, attempts to murder his mother, and blows a favorite pub to smithereens.
Directed by John Mackenzie and written by Barrie Keeffe, The Long Good Friday is a rabidly engaging, complex melodrama, brimming over with moxie. Unlike classic gangster heroes like Little Caesar, who fought their way out of the faceless mob and were punished for brutality and ambition, Harold Shand struggles to control his animal urges and to act like a civic-minded businessman. He detests anarchy and tries to use violence only as a tool. If he’s doomed, it’s because his left-handed brand of capitalism can’t defend itself against the terrorism of the IRA. Harold Shand becomes a sacrificial lamb for all our Western sins. After Shand—the apocalypse!
The movie is viciously funny and exciting, but the filmmakers never let us exult in Shand’s (or the IRA’s) bloodletting. There’s a shocking, blasphemous edge to the imagery, even when it doesn’t involve a car being blown up in a church courtyard or a security guard’s hands being nailed to the floor. As Shand’s civilized facade crumbles to reveal the beast within, the sting is satiric as well as visceral. When Harry hangs underworld associates upside down from meat hooks in an abattoir, he could be conducting his own parodic crucifixions.
Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren go all the way with the make-or-break parts of Harold Shand and his beloved Victoria. In no small performing feat, Mirren creates a gal who’s smart, sensual, and tough, able to control most of her big shot’s detonations and even, in a wrestling feint, calm him to a standstill. And Hoskins does more with his cheeks and jowls than Richard Nixon: He makes the curve of his teeth look as ominous as a crossbow, and trains his eyes like gun sights on his targets. Hoskins has the gift usually attributed to American, not English, actors—of getting so far inside a character’s skin that we seem to be witnessing vivid behavior rather than bravura performance. In The Long Good Friday, the felt life Hoskins packs into Shand’s bowling-pin body and pinsetter’s voice enables Mackenzie to resurrect the British gangster film.
Michael Sragow reviews new movies for SF Weekly and old ones for the New Yorker.