Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Long Good Friday

My love affair with movies began in 1977 when I queued around the streets surrounding Bradford's Odeon cinema to see Star Wars. Although I had seen other films there before - memorably Disney's Robin Hood and Bugsy Malone - Star Wars taught me for the first time about the power of cinema; of compelling characters and strong storylines; of how cinematography combines with the score to feed, nurture and manipulate our emotions. The empire is instantly recognisable as evil by its own theme, while the future heroics of the day-dreaming, wistful Luke Skywalker are suggested in his gaze at the dual sunset on Tatooine.

An earlier memory is sitting at home on a Sunday evening aged five or six watching The Battle of Britain for the first time. Growing up in a household with three older brothers and a father equally obsessed with war films as I have become it seems inevitable that this movie would encourage an interest in World War Two ("That's an Heinkel"; "No, it's a Messerschmitt"; "Heinkel"; "Messerschmitt"), just as the now painful-to-watch Green Berets got me interested in the Vietnam War.

Star Wars, The Battle of Britain and even The Green Berets are part of what I describe as my "comfort film" collection. These are movies that I can watch again and again; I put them in the DVD when I feel low, ill, tired or just a little restless. I know the words off by heart; I know the story arcs and the fate of each character. And yet, watching them brings some comfort, joy, release and transports me back to another time in my life - usually a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV with Dad. Other films in my comfort collection include older films such as Zulu, A Bridge Too Far, Lawrence of Arabia, and the complete James Cagney (in my view the most versatile actor ever to come out of Hollywood). But I also have a number of later films in my comfort collection: The World According to Garp which got me hooked on John Irving's novels and still makes me cry at the end; Die Hard; The Italian Job (the perfect original, not the travesty of a remake, or as they say today, reboot); any Spielberg movie (Close Encounters remains his absolute masterpiece. I remember writing in a school essay in 1983 that he would be known as the greatest movie director); The Untouchables; the Godfather trilogy (yes, even the third!); Apocalypse Now; Scorsese movies, especially Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino; and the Coen Brothers' Fargo, Bad Santa and Brother, Where Art Thou? I do wonder if my new found love of Ingmar Bergman may mean that his movies Wild Strawberries, Summer with Monika and Summer Interlude will one day become comfort movies, especially as my infatuation with Zhang Yimou's muse, Gong Li, has been replaced by my love for Harriet Anderson and Maj-Britt Nilsson.

A recent addition to my comfort collection is John Mackenzie's 1980 film, The Long Good Friday, which defined both a genre and an era. It gave birth to the British gangster movie that had its greatest success under Guy Ritchie in the 1990s; and it represented the optimism and ideals that are associated with the early years of the Thatcher government. It is hardly a coincidence that the Conservatives were elected to power only the year before the film was released, for it is difficult to imagine it having the same resonance against the backdrop of the severe 1970s and the Winter of Discontent (Mike Hodges' 1971 film, Get Carter, was a similarly brutal and raw gangster film that was embedded in the poverty found among the terraced housing in North-East England). 1980 was a time of possibility, of rebirth and regeneration when entrepreneurship promised to turn the country around. Watching it again in 2012 one can only applaud its prescience, since the movie turns on plans to re-develop the London Docklands a a venue for a future Olympic Games:

I'm not a politician; I'm a businessman, with a sense of history; and I'm also a Londoner. And today is a day of great historical significance for London. Our country is not an island any more. We're a leading European state. And I believe this is the decade London will become Europe's capital, having cleared away the outdated, we've got mile after mile, acre after acre of land for our future prosperity ... so it's important that the right people mastermind the new London ...    
The speaker is Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins in his career-defining and perhaps greatest role), kingpin of London's underworld and aspiring legitimate property tycoon. He is the standard-bearer of what we would later call "The New Right" - a man of imagination, determination; a member of the working class who had pulled themselves up to success of one sort or another. However, the Tory party (of 1980 and 2012) would no doubt recoil from Shand's unequivocal embrace of Europe.

In his quest for legitimacy and respectability Harold echoes Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) who spends his entire time in Coppola's Godfather trilogy claiming he aspires legitimacy for his Family, but never hesitates to resort to violence and intimidation when necessary. (Until Godfather, legitimacy and respectability were never the concern of the movie criminal classes; did Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart or Cagney ever worry about achieving legitimacy? Only Noel Coward's wonderfully menacing, comic turn as Mr Bridger in The Italian Job came close as an establishment figure to be feared, but he was seeking respect - for himself and Great Britain - rather than legitimacy). In the same way that Vito Corleone, the original Godfather (Marlon Brando), is envied ("He had all the judges and politicians in his pocket and refused to share them", says the head of the rival Tattaglia family), so Harold has senior London police officers and councillors on his pay-roll, and he is never reluctant to remind them where their ultimate loyalties lie. Increasingly frustrated by the police's lack of progress in helping him track down the perpetrators of the violence against his 'Corporation', Harold tells Chief Inspector 'Parky' (singer and comedian Dave King):

Don't you ever tell me what I can or can't do! Bent law can be tolerated for as long as they're lubricating, but you have become definitely parched. If I was you, I'd run for cover and close the hatch, 'cause you're gonna wind up on one of those meat hooks, my son.    
In The Long Good Friday Harold's future legitimacy depends on striking a deal with the American mafia (which he describes as "the hardest organisation since Hitler stuck a swastika on his jockstrap"), and the introduction of 'the Yanks' provides a segue in to the film's exploration of class, Britain's place in the world, and the fluid nature of the Special Relationship. "The Yanks love snobbery," Harold tells his partner, the decidedly upper-middle class Victoria (Helen Mirren). "They really feel they've arrived in England if the upper class treats 'em like shit." Harold's contempt for the Americans is exposed when his guests decide to leave London and head home without sealing the deal. Even they find the IRA's move against Harold's empire too risky. In their hotel room, Harold vents his fury:

I'm glad I found out in time just what a partnership with a pair of wankers like you would've been. A sleeping partner's one thing, but you're in a fucking coma! No wonder you got an energy crisis your side of the water! Us British, we're used to a bit more vitality, imagination, touch of the Dunkirk spirit, know what I mean? The days when Yanks could come over hear and buy up Nelson's Column and a Harley Street surgeon and a couple of Windmill girls are definitely over.

(American): Now look ...

(Harold):  Shut up you long streak of paralysed piss. What I'm looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world. Culture, sophistication, genius ... a little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean? We're in the Common Market now, and my new deal is with Europe. I'm going into partnership with a German organisation. Yeah, the Krauts! They've got ambition, know-how. And they don't lose their bottle. The Mafia? Hahahaha. I shit 'em ...
Although we tremble at Harold's vicious way of doing business - his hanging upside down on meat hooks in an abattoir all his rival London underground bosses and the neighbourhood 'narks' is a memorable set-piece, especially as the scene begins from the distorted point of view of one of the victims as he is pushed and pulled into Harold's presence - we do feel sympathy and even compassion for the man. We know he is not responsible for the attacks against him, but he is nevertheless blind to two salient points which lead to his ultimate downfall. First, Harold is a 1960s gangster operating at the end of the 1970s. The East End of the Krays is long gone, and while he still thinks he can bring order to London ...

For more than ten years there's been peace - everyone to his own patch. We've all had it sweet. I've done every single one of you favours in the past - I've put money in all your pockets. I've treated you well, even when you was out of order, right? Well now there's been an eruption. It's like fuckin' Belfast on a bad night. One of my closest friends is lyin' out there in the freezer. And believe me, all of you, nobody goes home until I find out who done it and why.
 ... Harold is blind to the other reality - that the threat to him is not the other London villains, but an adversary far more obscure, sinister and dangerous, the IRA. The IRA's terrorist campaign on the British mainland was at its height in the 1970s, with London the main target: Parliament, Oxford Street and the Tower of London were all attacked, while the decade ended with the assassination of the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Airey Neave, as he left the House of Commons on 30 March 1979. In 1974 a bomb was thrown through the window of the King's Arms pub in Woolwich. Harold Shand's local, The Lion and the Unicorn, is similarly destroyed by an IRA bomb. Audiences watching The Long Good Friday for the first time would be familiar with the IRA's techniques; Harold's mistake, perhaps like the British army, is to think that he is able to defeat them.

The film's conclusion is the most powerful scene in the whole movie and consolidated Bob Hoskins' position as one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. In the back of a car with a young and silent IRA operative (played by Pierce Brosnan) pointing a gun at him from the front seat, Harold slowly realises that it is the end. As the camera stays focused on Harold, we see his face betray a range of emotions: surprise, shock, fear, submission, acceptance. Both the actor and the camera take their time; this is not to be rushed. A more satisfying denouement is rare in the movies, and for me this final scene and Hoskins' masterful performance, gives The Long Good Friday its status as a British, if not a cinema classic.

There are rumours of a remake: Please, Hollywood, don't do it; leave The Long Good Friday alone, in 1980, with its sparkling performances, witty London-based script (by Barrie Keefe), and New Right optimism. Don't let the IRA become Al-Qaeda ...   

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