When the cat’s away, the mice will play, especially in the shady universe of the gangster genre. John Mackenzie’s classic British crime saga The Long Good Friday addresses such a brazen and intricate power shift when London don Harold (Bob Hoskins) returns home from a vacation in America to find his “firm” under attack by a mysterious source. During this prolonged psychological siege, panic infects every scene, forcing Harold and his corrupt brethren to drop all facades of proper businessman ethics and scurry like the cockroaches they really are. Harold’s legal aspirations of opening a lucrative casino on the abandoned city docks gets t-boned by this brutal and volatile threat, making The Long Good Friday equally concerned with the futile attempts at transcending the gangster life as it is about the brutal realities of revenge and retaliation.
The frenzied opening splurge of violence crosscuts multiple murders and explosions to dizzying affect. During these disjointed jumps in time and space, Mackenzie positions both Harold and the viewer in a fluid state of confusion. As Harold’s criminal existence becomes increasingly punctured, the glamorous nightclubs, fancy yachts, and posh penthouses suffocate any semblance of safety or balance. Phil Mehuex’s wonderfully dour color scheme and Francis Monkman’s hypnotic synthesizer score only adds to the aesthetic escalation of violence, sending Harold’s collection of thugs into a flurried state of resentment and doubt. The once arrogant, strong, and self-reliant Harold begins to sweat profusely, growing more jumpy and abrasive as the walls come crumbling down. In this sense, The Long Good Friday turns into a film about frantic reactions rather than confident actions, a deadly motif for any gangster on the back end of his rise-and-fall arc.
Still, The Long Good Friday engages a social topography that sets it apart from other 1970’s British gangster films like Get Carter or The Lavender Hill Mob. Harold often mentions his unique vision for the “new London,” an economic mobilization that will, in his mind, save the city from becoming a cesspool of poverty and drugs. These mostly longwinded monologues get projected onto his wife Victoria (Helen Mirren) and two American moneymen named Charlie and Tony (Eddie Constantine and Stephen Davies) who represent the Italian Mafia, talks that usually occur in extreme environments of individualistic wealth and prestige. Harold’s relationship with the American’s is especially fascinating since it’s a friendship that grows more problematic as the film progresses. What begins with Harold’s catchphrase “hands across the ocean” slowly devolves into a catastrophic final show of foreshadowing, the levelheaded Americans warning the Brit about his increasingly reckless behavior, leaving him consumed with rage.
Mackenzie’s film showcases Hoskins’s contorted physical performance, allowing Harold an unusual humanity for a character driven by the destruction of others. Mirren’s stoic gun moll makes the implications of the film’s morally ambiguous tone all the more upsetting. And while performance remains front and center throughout the film, it’s the political relevance that stands the test of time. The British/IRA tension defining the film’s diabolical finale stands out as an exemplary twist on the genre’s conventions. Mackenzie’s unflinchingly stylized vision reveals a poignant battle between brutal capitalism and political fanaticism, creating an allegory that nicely paints the tension between two countries engaged in ideological warfare.
After a late-inning shotgun massacre sends Harold back to the realm of overconfidence, Charlie warns him “this is like a bad night in Vietnam.” Harold just shrugs it off, actually believing he’s eradicated the main IRA threat bursting down the door. Mackenzie’s thematic connection between both the IRA and the North Vietnamese washes over Harold, who’s still obsessed with his own indulgent bubble of money, booze, and power. The Long Good Friday shows how circular political ideas seep into communal arenas of crime usually populated by local toughs only concerned with their own square problems. Harold’s realizes this complexity far too late, and his demise is a foregone conclusion.
As a collage of glossy gangster conventions and one-liners, The Long Good Friday explodes with energy, but it’s the political and social tensions that make Mackenzie’s film a lasting vision of British tragedy. Harold’s downfall seems to represent a national decline in confidence, for British ideology and Western capitalism in general. In the gangster film, once the cracks start to show and the rats begin jumping ship, only a delusional Ahab would believe he’s prevailed. Harold’s an arrogant convert until the bitter end.
The Long Good Friday is an urban rainbow of drab colors, haunting natural light, and kinetic mise-en-scène. Image Entertainment's 1080p hi-def transfer does this dynamic aesthetic vision justice, representing every corner of the frame with necessary clarity and texture. Unfortunately, many of the characters skin tones border on orange, making their faces pop against the overly dark interior night scenes. Light flashes occasionally overlap exterior scenes but only during specific early moments in the sun. The real star of this disc is the DTS-HD 5.1 audio, mixing the wonderfully dated synthesizer riffs, the saxophone solos, and the keyboard cues with the amazingly clear dialogue. In terms of style, the film has always been about mood, and the epic sound design makes this cinematic universe pop off the screen.
Only a trailer for the film, which does nothing to advance the barebones Criterion disc released in 1998.
The Long Good Friday, both a classic British gangster and a potent political commentary about Western urbanization, gets a worthy Blu-ray release.