‘The Long Good Friday’: The Epitome of British Gangster Films

The river wild: Bob Hoskins shows director John MacKenzie (left) a clean pair of heels

By Sven Mikulec

It really is to no surprise that over the years many filmlovers have had the nerve to call John MacKenzie’s The Long Good Friday “the British Godfather.” As much as such similes often miss the point, mislead future viewers and stand as an offense to the uniqueness of movies, with MacKenzie’s 1979 thriller it seems obvious that we’re dealing with an amazing gangster film fully capable of standing in the same paragraph with the best works of Coppola and Scorsese. The break-out film of the great Bob Hoskins’ career is a compellingly energetic story of a London-based gangster controlling the criminal underground and setting his plan in motion for the transformation of the London dockyards into a venue capable of hosting the 1988 Olympics. Things suddenly and unexpectedly turn for the worse when a series of bombings shakes the protagonist’s criminal empire and, faced with a faceless enemy of unknown origin, our determined but growingly panicky antihero is forced to act viciously and swiftly as he watches his kingdom crumbling down bit by bit.

The Long Good Friday was obviously about the transformation of the East End. The Bob Hoskins character was talking about the end of the Docks and mile after mile of territory for “profitable progress”—I think that was his phrase. I saw the film again about five years ago and it has a scene showing this model of how the area would look under the developers. It underestimated it completely—it ought to have shown Canary Wharf looking like Manhattan. Looking at it, I was taken by the fact that none of us had foreseen the enormous scale of change.

Possessing a violent sense of humor, exhibiting passionate, career defining performances from both Hoskins and his gun moll, the beautiful Helen Mirren, offering a stunningly deep and compassionate portrait of the main character, The Long Good Friday is an engaging, entertaining and utterly absorbing piece of filmmaking that has every right to be considered a highlight of British moviemaking of this type. Its feverish momentum holds you firmly in its grip, its powerful music makes the story sink in more efficiently, its acting completely wins you over and creates the impression you’re given nothing less than precious insight into real people and their very real problems. Hoskins’ character is a deeply complex one—you see him act savagely, brutally and without a trace of remorse, but then again, a few moments later an image of his joking around with the neighborhood kids or an intimate scene with his mistress turn the tables around and he suddenly seems like an approachable guy easy to understand and relate to, or even show sympathy for.

It’s not only Hoskins to thank for this: former journalist Barrie Keefe’s script is constructed so competently it doesn’t strike us as pretentious to compare it to the best works within the genre. The British Godfather, you say? When a film has a combination of talent this impressive, and a firm legacy to testify to its greatness three decades upon release—why not?

The seeds were planted then; it was a very fertile time, just before the end of the Krays’ empire, and a lot of my plays, and some of the incidents in The Long Good Friday, came from my experiences. For instance, one of the gangland punishments, if you strayed into someone else’s territory, was to crucify you to the warehouse floor. As a very innocent junior reporter, a young 18, I was sent to interview a guy in hospital. He was covered in bandages and I asked him what had happened. He said, with that wonderful East End humour, “Do you understand English, son? Well, put it down to a do-it-yourself accident.” —Barrie Keeffe on The Long Good Friday

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay for The Long Good Friday, originally called The Paddy Factor [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and Arrow Films (Limited Edition). Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Cast and Crew: The Long Good Friday brings together John MacKenzie, Barrie Keeffe, Barry Hanson, actor Derek Thompson, casting director Simone Reynolds to discuss the film, its making and its legacy. There are also interviews from Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Watching Keeffe and MacKenzie around a table together, there is still the crackle of creative tension, as writer and director both lay claim to the film’s success. —Documentary on the making of the The Long Good Friday

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Another documentary about the making of The Long Good Friday, including interviews with John Mackenzie, stars Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Pierce Brosnan, producer Barry Hanson and Phil Meheux.

Bob Hoskins hand-signed and dedicated picture to Ronnie Kray and sent to him whilst he was at Broadmoor mental asylum.

Neon Magazine’s Flashback 1981: The Long Good Friday.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday. Still photographer: Ken Wainman © Embassy Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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