Things Fall Apart: The Long Good Friday (1980)


A staple of the gangster film is the undoing of empires.  It is almost impossible to think of an example in which things work out for the players within an organized crime syndicate, and yet the genre continues to flourish with films being released each year that highlight the rise and inevitable fall of sympathetic, yet dangerous sociopaths.  Why?  Because the civilized world is fascinated with the dark side, the underworld where there are no constraints.  John Mackenzie's uncompromising masterwork, The Long Good Friday was one of the first evolutions of the genre.  Rather than build towards the end, things begin in the middle of Armageddon.  

Harold Shand's criminal empire is evaporating around him while he is simultaneously attempting to go legit with the help of an American Mafioso.  What follows is a staggering commentary on late 70's European politics and a bleak examination of the encroachment of civilized society on those who will not conform.  Barry Keeffe's script is immaculate, showcasing the film's unassailable economy.  Every scene, every line of dialogue is flawlessly blended into a merciless approach to exhausted material.  One of the most interesting aspects of the film is in its midlevel approach.  While The Godfather had an operatic approach as opposed to The Friends of Eddie Coyle being mired in the muck of low level thugs, Friday focuses on a crime boss trying to extricate himself who becomes swept up, not only by inherent dangers of his trade, but in the uncertainty of progress. 

Shand is brought to life by Bob Hoskins, in one of his many legendary performances.  For the bulk of the narrative, Hoskins portrays Shand as a rabid predator, barely able to contain himself while everything he has built is burning down around him.  His aura of menace is palpable, dripping off the screen to envelope the viewer with a dangerous allure.  The way Hoskins is able to shift through the emotional gamut is fascinating, especially during the finale as the animal is nihilistically domesticated and the way this is communicated is one of the greatest displays of acting in cinematic history.  Hoskins is supported by Helen Mirren as Victoria, Shand's moll who is the only person able to tame him.  Her chemistry with Hoskins is presented as a series of transactions and subtleties that echo the realities of a criminal lifestyle.  Mirren's elegance and formidable talent allows Victoria to abandon the trope of forgettable gangster wives and mistresses to present a self-confident partner in Shand's doomed machinations.  

Everything about this film is a method of constriction.  Cinematography legend Phil Meheux captures Shand's ordeal with sharp angled closeups and washed-out wide shots of an opulent metropolis whose corruption is beginning to stain the pristine veneer.  The city is depicted, not as a living character but as a prison from which Shand can never escape, even as IRA specters descend into his venomous kingdom.  This is echoed in Francis Monkman's pulse pounding score that features an intoxicating main theme that is symbolic of the high stakes roulette the principals are engaged in, creating an ambiance of suffocation that slowly boxes the viewer in as the story rages towards its inevitable, yet still shocking conclusion. 

At its core, this is an unusual gangster film because you are living the final moments of every other gangster film over 114 minutes, slowed down so that every mistake and preconceived notion can be obliterated in real time.  The result is arguably one of most gripping depictions of organized crime ever committed to the medium.  Friendships turn bloody in an instant, misunderstandings topple entire regimes, and the audience knows only one thing with certainty: No one is getting out unscathed.   Hoskins’ furious dedication to the material is the centerpiece in that his rage and killer instincts endear him, so much that that absolute pitch-black darkness of the denouement hits with an unparalleled amount of force.  These are characters whom most taxpayers would never interact with, let along see and yet watching their fates play out is a form of existential catharsis. 

Now available on a Region 2 blu-ray via Arrow Video, The Long Good Friday is a flawless approach to the gangster film.  Perhaps the meanest motor scooter in the pool, Bob Hoskin's anti-hero is the performance of lifetime and one of the most unforgettable characters ever imagined.  There are films that change fundamentals when viewed, that redefine worldviews and personalities.  Then there are films like this, pictures that haunt you long after they've concluded, stories that open a window into a world best left in the shadows where the monsters roam and the question becomes: Are we better off for having glimpsed into the abyss? 


--Kyle Jonathan