In Memory of Bob Hoskins: “The Long Good Friday”

May 1, 2014

The Long Good Friday begins with Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) swaggering off a Concorde and through Heathrow Airport with the arrogance of a lion inspecting its patch of the Serengeti (or wherever lions live) while a ‘70s-era saxophones wail on the soundtrack. The jazz might as well be Harold’s own personal theme music, since, as we quickly learn, he came up hard in the underworld of the London docks, defeated all contenders, built a criminal empire, and is now poised to make a killing developing the very docks Harold tamed. He wears a perfectly-tailored, cream-colored suit; keeps with a beautiful, intelligent mistress (Helen Mirren); and splits his time between his penthouse apartment and yacht moored on the Thames. Harold, if anyone, deserves wah-wah saxophones playing while he walks. The Long Good Friday is about the 48 hours in his life in which he tears it all down. It’s a great movie—one which secures Bob Hoskins in the pantheon of brilliant actors—and it more than deserves its place as my 300th post.

It’s shaping up to be a long weekend for Harold. Representatives of the American Mafia are in town, and he’s pitching them his deal to develop the docks. If they can front the money, Harold will be intractably legitimate and will make them all a boatload of money. That’s a lot of pressure under normal circumstances, but then the attacks come. First, a bomb goes off in his car, killing his driver. Another is found in one of his casinos. Then one of his oldest friends is gutted in a public pool by a man he mistakes to be a cruising joyboy (Pierce Brosnan in his first film role…Jesus, did this guy ever have an awkward period?)

Of course the timing is atrocious, and Harold has to hide it from the Americans, while devising his war plans. The confounding thing is that the assault comes seemingly from nowhere. None of Harold’s crew has the slightest notion who might be behind it (when they mentally run down a list of his enemies, they realize that they’re all dead). As Harold scrambles to keep the Americans in the dark, the attacks intensify, and Harold finds himself at war with shadows. Over the course of the film we watch as he sheds more and more of his airs of civility and reveals his innate brutality.  I can’t go too much further without ruining the viewing experience—and make no mistake, this is a movie you should see—but when Harold finally learns who his challenger are, he finds himself in a contest he can barely begin to understand.

Let’s face it: gangster movies are easy to make. You take a charismatic anti-hero, add an irredeemable villain (or organization or family), throw in some moral ambiguity and excessive violence, shake well and let it cook for 100 or so minutes. The better ones lean heavily on the element of tragedy. Think of Michael Corleone being subsumed by his family’s evil in a way his father never was. Think of Henry Hill blithely selling out everyone and everything in his life for another buck in Goodfellas. What makes The Long Good Friday such a unique experience is that it eschews most of the typical mob-war cliches we’ve all seen and concentrates solely on Harold’s unraveling. It  makes for a clever bit of genre fusion—the gangster movie as whodunit—and it focuses on some deeper themes that most gangster movies miss.

Harold is not a sympathetic character—his violence does not mask a larger code or any crap like that—but he is a smart, pragmatic one, and director John Mackenzie and writer Barrie Keefe know that watching a consummate professional at work makes for propulsive storytelling whether we care about his aims or not (I mean, tell me you give a tinker’s damn about late ’70s urban development in London). And Harold is true professional, whether he’s making his sales pitch to the Americans or having one of his flunkies (a knife-scarred Golum known only as “Razors”) torture a drug-dealer for information.  He does an impressive job of keeping his balls in the air, even as the escalating attacks hasten his devolution into the ruthless thug he had to be to build his world.

Perhaps most intriguing is the fundamental clash of ideologies that Harold is confronted with in the film’s denouement.  That’s the point where he really needs a wise, old Michael Caine to give him that Dark Knight speech about how some men don’t care about the things we would kill or die for, and simply want to see the world burn. Thirty years later, and the movie could easily be seen as a parable for the war on terror.

But none of this would work if Hoskins was anything short of brilliant. It’s absolutely criminal that most audiences only know him as the dude that played sidekick to Roger freaking Rabbit. Hoskins isn’t a chameleon, but he is a master of his craft. He makes a cunning, violent man complex and compelling. He is utterly unafraid to shed his humanity onscreen, and, improbably, makes his moments of clarity–the moments when he futilely tries to slow his descent—pathetic without ever being poignant. Harold would have no use for the audience’s sympathy and neither does Hoskins. The final scene is a minute-long close-up on Hoskin’s face as he ponders what the violence of the last two days has come to, and with a few facial twitches, he brilliantly communicates the depths of the man (If you want to see it in all its spoilery glory, click here—but really, you should see the movie).

The Long Good Friday had a tortured release history, and wasn’t much seen outside the UK. Too bad, really, since it deserves a place amid the greatest gangster films ever made (it’s light years ahead of the over-praised, overrated Scarface, which seemingly every angry male holds up as brilliant). It’s finally been given a proper DVD release, so maybe now, three decades later, the world can give Bob Hoskins the credit he deserves.

Helen Mirren’s no slouch, either.

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