' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Long Good Friday (1980)

Friday, April 07, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Long Good Friday (1980)

There is one moment in John Mackenzie’s “The Long Good Friday” that I can’t stop thinking about. It happens late, after Harold Shand’s (Bob Hoskins) hold on the London underworld has frayed at the seams and he is but moments away from stabbing an associate in the neck with a bottle in a fit of rage. He boards his yacht anchored in the Thames and pours himself a scotch, as one does when stressed. But it’s what he does next that sticks with me, when he goes to his wet bar sink and dollops his liquor of choice with water. Harold is a helluva character, a fascinating mess of contradictions, an East-Ender punching above his weight, manifested in Hoskins’ 5’6” bulldog build, who has a posh middle class girlfriend (Helen Mirren) and, like, you know, obviously, a yacht anchored in the Thames, working hard to cultivate an air of refinement, which is why even here, now, in his darkest hour, he instinctively adds a few drops of water to enhance the aromas of his chosen beverage, a striving for sophistication to the end. In its way, this small moment of behavior is evocative of “The Long Good Friday” as a whole, a movie that churns through incredible amounts of plot even as a character study hides in plain sight, an age-old tale of a corrupt man trying to become legitimate, even if he’s trying to become legitimate with the help of American mafia money, as quietly laugh out loud funny as that scotch and water. 

The movie begins with something of a head scratch, not so much introducing us to characters as just dropping us down alongside a few of them and leaving us to fend for ourselves. It’s confusing, no doubt, but it’s fine. It’s fine because we get up to speed at the same intermittent rate as Harold himself, who is introduced several minutes after this elliptical opening, a deft touch illustrating how events have already been set in motion to uproot his best laid plans. Those plans involve buying up the shabby London docklands with the financial assistance of the American mafia to transform them as a place to construct a stadium for hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. Harold explains this to potential investors and various lackeys and hangers-on aboard his yacht in a speech where he pitches London as the future capital of Europe, the Tower Bridge looming directly behind him, making it look for all the world like he’s fit for the guillotine and doesn’t even know it. Indeed, as he’s trying to project authority for the Yanks, his authority is being undermined by a mysterious enemy unleashing a series of killings and bombings targeting Harold’s network, turning him into something like a bullheaded private eye by way of peeved kingpin. That his quote-unquote investigation spans Good Friday is a pretty funny joke. Christ suffered for our sins; Harold suffers for his delusions of grandeur.

Myriad film critics and culture writers across the pond have noted how Harold exists as a kind of embodiment of Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist and nationalist platform in becoming UK Prime Minister the year before the movie’s release. But Harold Shand would merely be political cipher without Hoskins’s performance giving it life. It’s not so much the unexpected human dimension he provides in spots as it is how he plays a true force of nature by gradually reducing that forcefulness until all that remains is bluster, a palpably small man who both can’t quite bring himself to see and never fully understands the opposition arrayed against him, not until it’s too late. Though even then, in the unforgettable final scene, in the back of a car, his alternating expressions suggest one part recognition and one part resistance, looking his fate square in the eye and flaring his nostrils. 

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