BLOG: Hands Across the Ocean

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Hands Across the Ocean

Ask me what my favourite British crime movie is, and you’re likely to get a rather guilty pause before I answer. You see, anyone with connections to the North East of England is supposed to say Get Carter. It’s kind of hardwired into the northern cultural consciousness. But the reality is that Get Carter is horribly flawed, a film more popular because of its parts than its whole, and ultimately a decent adaptation of a vastly superior novel. As for the others, well, I loved watching Ben Kingsley and Richard Burton chew the scenery in Sexy Beast and Villain respectively. I loved the determination-turned-psychosis of Billie Whitelaw and Sean Connery in Payroll and The Offence. I always thought Dickie Attenborough’s best performances were as sweaty, weak-minded villains in the likes of Brighton Rock, The League of Gentlemen, Séance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place, just as I always thought Alec Guinness was at his best when he portrayed the venal heart of the British establishment in The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. Hell, I even have some admiration for Snatch, even though I start to twitch whenever anyone mentions Ritchie’s name in a positive comparison, given the long, lumpy cascade of crap that came in his wake.

But my favourite British crime film, and the one that I think holds up better than any of the above, remains The Long Good Friday. It’s been described as a whodunnit in gangster clothing and a throwback to the classic Warner Bros. crime dramas like Little Caesar and The Roaring Twenties and while both are pretty accurate descriptions, The Long Good Friday is more than the sum of its influences. Unlike Get Carter, which spawned at least two American remakes, The Long Good Friday is a movie firmly rooted in its period and location. The movie is as much about Thatcherism and national (specifically English) hubris in the face of terrorism as it is about a gangster trying to join the upper echelons of society, and it’s that connection to a time and place that weirdly makes the movie all the more relevant today. Shand’s boat is moored where he aims to redevelop, a site that would ultimately turn into Canada Square and Canary Wharf. Shand and his bent copper contact walk along the dock “where they were going to build the 1988 Olympic stadium”, a ridiculous notion at the time, yet one which also seems prescient given that the ExCeL Centre on that very same dock is to be divided into four sports halls for the 2012 Olympics. In many ways, then, Shand is a visionary and his plans are a sharp depiction of the London to come.

Similarly, I can think of no other crime film protagonist that so utterly encapsulates a nation’s relationship with the rest of the western world than The Long Good Friday‘s Harold Shand, whose final “The Mafia? I’ve shit ‘em” speech can be read as both Parthian blow and blustering satire. Shand is the quintessential self-made man, an old-school East End hardman whose business interests may be legit (casinos, pubs) but whose methods certainly aren’t. He’s also a bullish representation of a dying breed, stuck in the mire of Dunkirk spirit nostalgia and his own dubious self-worth. In many respects, he could be a walking cliché, but Bob Hoskins plays Shand with a raw complexity, at once fearsome, funny and fragile, a far cry from the typical movie gang boss. It’s worth remembering that this was his breakthrough role, too – he’d previously been known for his (admittedly tremendous) TV work on Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven. Hoskins’ performance in The Long Good Friday is nothing short of powerhouse, and gives the film an effectively weighty dramatic core that helps it to transcend both its budget and its genre.

Not that The Long Good Friday ever really deals in cliché. This is a movie set in London, but which features no red buses, no black cabs, no shots of Big Ben. It’s a gangster movie, but a majority of the violence is done to the gangsters rather than by them – apart from a nasty little interrogation scene and a final shooting, Shand’s men do little more than round people up and threaten them (albeit in spectacular fashion). Shand’s only true act of violence comes towards the end of the movie, and the death it leaves in its wake is entirely accidental. And while there are stock genre characters – the gangster, the moll, the lieutenant, the bent politician and even more bent copper – they’re given a fresh coat of paint by Barrie Keeffe’s outstanding script (Keeffe also wrote the splendid Sus, which was adapted to the screen in 2010) and cast performances. Mirren in particular makes the otherwise pretty thankless role of Victoria into something special. She’s no moll, but an intelligent, highly-educated woman and perfect balance to Shand’s upbringing and methodology. She is emphatically the only one who can control him, too – it’s Victoria who slaps and grabs a raging Harold and stares him into something approaching sanity.

What really sets The Long Good Friday apart in my mind, however, is its tone. A vast majority of crime movies were rather sombre affairs at the time – witness the po-faced vengeance of Jack Carter – and while Guy Ritchie went on to populate his movies with caricatures of Mockney tough-nuts (nicking PH Moriarty, Alan Ford and even Dexter Fletcher from The Long Good Friday for his casts), the humour in The Long Good Friday is almost entirely ironic without seeming so. Lines like “You don’t go crucifying people outside a church. Not on Good Friday!” and “It’s like one of them silent deadly farts. No clues and then POW, you go cross-eyed.” are delivered without the standard nod-and-a-wink that would come to define the British gangster movie, and are all the more effective because of it. A majority of the funny lines belong to Shand, and they normally come as part of a dramatic scene. The scene where Shand grieves over his dead right-hand man Colin is a key example – when he’s told that his mate’s corpse is going to be taken away by an ice cream van, he says, “There’s a lot of dignity in that, isn’t there? Going out like a raspberry ripple …” giving his grief a sardonic punchline. That Hoskins (and the script) can switch tone as often as it does is thanks to the control and talent of the film’s cast and crew. Of course, Hoskins’ ultimate show reel comes in the deadly serious last few minutes of the film, which remains a masterclass in how to think on screen, as Shand deliberates his situation, cycling through surprise, outrage, violence, planning escape, realising the futility of escape, encroaching despair and then, finally, that sickening resignation to his fate before the inevitable cut to black.

That same fate almost applied to the movie. Originally made for transmission on Lew Grade’s ATV (and financed by his ITC and Black Lion subsidiary), The Long Good Friday proved to be a dicey proposition for the cigar-chewing Lord. He thought the movie to be unpatriotic and potentially dangerous because of the portrayal of the IRA as a force to be reckoned with, and so sought to release the movie in a castrated, incomprehensible 82-minute cut and with Bob Hoskins’ performance dubbed by a bloke from Bilston (David Daker of TV’s Boon – yeah, I know). Thankfully, it was this latter indiscretion that helped rectify the situation, as Hoskins pursued a court order which was supported by no lesser figures than Alec Guinness and Richard Burton, and which embarrassed the star-loving Grade into selling The Long Good Friday to the highest bidder. This ultimately led to the movie being picked up by George Harrison’s fledgling company Handmade Films, which would go on to release Mona Lisa and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and which released The Long Good Friday to excellent reviews and even better business.

That it stands up to scrutiny over thirty years after its release is testament to The Long Good Friday‘s raw power and modern sensibility, and to my mind it’s one of the few British crime movies that live up to the genre’s full potential. If you haven’t seen The Long Good Friday, you need to. If you have, then you need to see it again. Oh, and for those of you who think it’s terrible that a Northerner would opt for a movie set in That London over one set in Newcastle, it’s worth remembering that John Mackenzie was an Edinburgh lad.


  1. Man, that last 2 minutes is just amazing… Hoskins entirely silent taking it all in with that fantastic score. Love it.

  2. Dana King says:

    Maybe it’s just an American thing, but I’ve long thought Bob Hoskins was one of the finest actors of his generation. He had a good run here for a few years, but his range alone deserved more respect.

  3. Dyer Wilk says:

    I’m afraid I haven’t seen it, but considering your review (and my fondness for Hoskins), I’ll be looking for it.

    Thanks for mentioning The Offence. It’s one of my favorites, although it requires more patience than most people would be willing to give it.

    • Ray Banks says:

      The Offence is a difficult one to love, right enough. Lumet made some terrific British movies that seemed to slip under the radar. I’m still shocked that there isn’t a proper release of The Hill. But definitely seek out The Long Good Friday. You won’t be disappointed.

  4. Andrew Nette says:

    I would not go as far as saying Get Carter is horribly flawed, but you make a pretty good case for The Long Good friday being the best British crime film ever made. Certainly both films show up how bad most of the UK gangster pics released in the wake of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells, are.

    • Ray Banks says:

      It’s kind of unfair of me to compare the two, given that there was almost a decade between ‘em. I just love the book (which isn’t even Lewis’ best) and seem to recall an interview with Hodges where he was less than charitable about it, so I think that stuck. Every time I’m back in Newcastle, I do want to shout, “IS THERE A MISTER CARTER IN THE ROOM?” whenever I’m in a pub.

  5. K. A. Laity says:

    Love this film: first saw it in a double feature with The Hit, which seemed to be the theme ‘bad guys having bad days.’ it really brought out the best aspects in th differences of the two, and the utter exasperation of these men unaccustomed to having things fail to go their way. Stamp’s insouciance through most of the film was so glorious.

    • Ray Banks says:

      The bloody Hit! I knew I’d forgotten something. Stamp plays calm so very well, doesn’t he? Nice counterpoint to Roth’s scummy little punk.