The menace of the old East End: Bob Hoskins (left) as Harold Shand (image: REX/Moviestore Collection)
When Bob Hoskins died earlier this year, far too young, I was struck by the almost universal assertion that Mona Lisa was his best film. I haven't seen them all, but I have seen one that is better: indeed, so much better that I would put it as perhaps the finest film made in Britain in the last quarter of the 20th century, and a film that always yields something new however often one watches it. I refer, of course, to The Long Good Friday.
I saw it at the cinema when it came out in 1980 and found it, on first sight, utterly gripping. It made Hoskins, playing the East End gangster Harold Shand, a star. Repeated viewings over almost 35 years, and the benefit of hindsight — or rather, of historical perspective — have elevated the film for me to being an important document of the times as well as a magnificent piece of cinema. It was made in the summer of 1979 at a pivotal moment in British history, and in the history of London. It was the dawn of the Thatcher era, when the emphasis was on entrepreneurship as a means to reversing the nation's decline. Harold Shand has decided to go straight. He has his eye on a development site in his "manor", one of the symbols of what went wrong with Britain after the Second World War — the near-derelict London docklands of the late 1970s. He wants to provide the location for an Olympic Games in East London, but his criminal empire is insufficient to provide the funding. He needs a partner and, aiming high as always, decides to join up with a Mafia boss from New York.
However, plans go badly awry. On the Good Friday in question Harold lands in a Concorde from New York and hosts a drinks party that morning on the Thames, describing his plans to the assembly. Over the next few hours he learns, among other things, that his Rolls-Royce has been blown up outside the church where his mother has been attending the service; that his best friend has been stabbed to death in a swimming baths; another trusty is nailed to the floor (this is Good Friday, after all); and a bomb is planted at the West End casino that, Kray-style, he happens to own. He seeks to find out who is trying to put the frighteners on him at a very delicate time: the Mafia are about to arrive and the last thing they want is to have Harold attracting such attention. It turns out that the stabbed friend, in a freelance operation, had stolen £5,000 from the IRA, and the IRA aren't happy. Harold tracks them down, offers to make amends, double-crosses them and kills two terrorists, but the film ends with him being driven away from the Savoy not by his own driver but by two IRA men, one of whom — played by Pierce Brosnan — is pointing a gun at him. Crime doesn't pay.
Terrorism, though, might. That was certainly the opinion of Lew Grade, who commissioned the film to show on television, and who was shocked by what he saw, believing it glamorised Republican terrorism at a time when the Troubles were an open wound. It does nothing of the sort: the IRA are shown as psychopathic killers and gangsters, rather like a parasite taking over a host. And the ordinary London gangster, who has through fear and violence lorded it over others for so long, is seen, through their agency, coming to an inevitably unpleasant end. Grade said he would only show the film with heavy cuts, which prompted those responsible for it to protest at his vandalism. Happily, George Harrison's Handmade Films intervened, bought the project, and gave it a cinematic release. It swiftly achieved cult status.