in Criterion Month

The Long Good Friday (1979)

When Bob Hoskins died in 2014, one of the things I remember seeing written about the most (aside from Super Mario and Hook) was his star turn performance in The Long Good Friday. Particularly, I remember seeing people post the last couple minutes of the movie and talk about how gifted he was to convey so much wordlessly. That scene definitely put this movie on my radar: the distinct music, young Pierce Brosnan, complicated politics in a gangster movie? It sounded awesome. Then I forgot about The Long Good Friday for six years, until my last pre-pandemic movie going experience: The Gentlemen. That Guy Ritchie movie borrows a lot from The Long Good Friday, including a very direct homage to that ending scene. When that happened a light went off in my head and, like Lex in Jurassic Park, I couldn’t help but think “I know this!” So that night I decided I would definitely make time to watch The Long Good Friday.

Of course it still took me a year and half to do it, but hey, that’s why we have Criterion Month. So, Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London gangster who is making the big push into legitimate business. Having conquered his part of town, Harold brings in members of the American Mafia to help fund his plan to redevelop the docks as the venue for the 1988 London Olympics (which ended up being in Seoul, by the way, London didn’t get the summer games again until 2012). He’s in the perfect position to make this move: there’s no gang wars going on, he’s got police on his payroll, and even a local construction boss, Councillor Harris (Bryan Marshall) is in his back pocket. Except that the same day the Americans arrive, Harold’s henchmen start dying and his properties start blowing up.

The only clue we have at the start is a confusing transaction unfolding in Belfast. We watch some men sneakily exchange money, then later the recipients are mowed down by gunmen. Harold doesn’t even know about that, so he has to get to work immediately to figure out who is attacking his organization and why. He leaves his wife, Victoria (Helen Mirren), in charge of smoothing things over with the American mobsters, but they suspect something is up and give Harold just 24 hours to settle things. So has years of peace made Harold go soft? Was he betrayed by one of his own men? What does this have to do with the IRA? It turns out sometimes knowing the ending still doesn’t make a movie predictable!

The Long Good Friday feels like it could have been a sequel or even a spin-off of an earlier film. The crime genre is so often about acquiring power that it’s actually exciting to see someone who already has everything. On paper, starting at this point means Harold should be the villain in someone else’s story. Instead, you get to watch him desperately do some horrible shit as his life of dirty deeds catches up with him. I don’t know if this was most viewers’ experience, but I did sympathize with his confusion and anger, to the point that his rage and greed get him to do some despicable shit. Maybe I was supposed to hate him the entire time and Bob Hoskins’ performance tricked me into liking him for a bit?

Anyway, if you did watch the ending scene I linked above, you, like me, probably came to the conclusion that Harold was fucked. You can see it on his face, he recognizes he’s out of moves and for the first time is speechless. However, let me tell you that screenwriter Barrie Keeffe did not agree. He wrote a sequel, which would have been called Black Easter Monday, which would have Harold escaping the IRA when the car gets pulled over by the police and then going to retire in Jamaica for 20 years. He would then have returned to London in an attempt to stop the Yardies (Jamaican gangs) from taking over. Unfortunately, Keefee admitted it was hard to get Hoskins, Mirren, and Brosnan to synch their schedules before Hoskins passed away. But a sequel might have taken away some of the power of that scene, so maybe it’s for the best that sequel only lives in one man’s imagination.