Sympathy For The Devil? The Long Good Friday’s Harold Shand

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“You don’t crucify people! Not on Good Friday!”

Like its London gangster anti-hero Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), The Long Good Friday, completed in 1979 but not released until the next year by Lew Grade’s nervous lackeys, straddles the tired old Britain of Labour and the brash, unfeeling new Conservatism of the upcoming ’80’s.

Harold, an old school villain risen to the top of the slag heap, is moving into legitimate  property development in a big way, an eager disciple of Thatcherite policies. He’s close to signing a lucrative, prescient deal with the Mafia to develop London’s crumbling Docklands as a potential future Olympic stadium and village. But on this Good Friday, a fatal misunderstanding between his foot soldiers and “the old enemy”, the IRA, sees their pure, unflinching, unyielding ideology tear his play house down in a series of stabbings, shootings  and explosions, undermining him before the yanks and having him see treachery around every corner. As the sickening knot in his stomach tightens, he is left thinking, to paraphrase singer Jonah Louie, “Can you stop the Calvary?” 

The Long Good Friday was Hoskins’ first major film role (although it nearly ended up a butchered TV edit), and a blisteringly break out one at that. Bullet headed, puffed-up and pugnacious, Harold’s pride takes a hell of a beating. All his fingers in many pies are getting singed, one by one. He even finds his tame law men aren’t any use to him now:

Don’t you ever tell me what I can or can’t do! Bent law can be tolerated for as long as they’re lubricating, but you have become definitely parched. If I was you, I’d run for cover and close the hatch, ’cause you’re gonna wind up on one of those meat hooks, my son.”

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This after he has frustratingly been dragged back to his old familiar ways. Harold sees himself as King of the (Elephant and) Castle, with posh girlfriend Victoria (Helen Mirren), who claims to have played Lacrosse with Princess Anne, as his Queen. Even his prized pub (before it gets blown to bits) is called the Lion And Unicorn. Barrie Keefe’s literate script infuses Harold with a handy way with words, as well as fists: “I’ll have his carcass dripping blood by midnight” is like something the Thane Of Cawdor would say after his courage is screwed to “the sticking place” by Victoria’s Lady Macbeth of the Manor.

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Not just menacing, but droll with it too: “I’m setting up the biggest deal in Europe with the hardest organisation since Hitler stuck a swastika on his jockstrap.”

Hoskins stated “Harold had a morality which had limits, he had violence which had limits. But he was up against idealists who had no limits.” Leaning forward like a battleship at full steam, ears and eyes twitching to every upset, his is an intensely physical inhabiting of the role, rather than a performance. Hoskins grew up around shady characters, and villains filled the actorly ranks. He said “In that scene when Harold gives out the guns to his crew, a lot of those guys are the real thing. I started shouting at some of my mates in one scene, and the gangsters told me to stop shouting. “These guys know who you are, ” they told me.”

Director John McKenzie said of his leading man: “Bob had an amazing raw talent. He was fairly new to films, although he had done Pennies From Heaven on TV.  I remember just giving him his head in some scenes. There was a very long scene when he kills a guy with a bottle at the end of a long, angry speech. After the first take I told him, “Do it again, but this time don’t pause and sit down on the edge of the bed, just keep going.” He said “What, did I sit down?” He didn’t know. He was just following his instincts.”

Believing he has settled his problems at last, Harold isn’t too pleased on arrival at The Savoy to find his yank backers are pulling out. He turns back to them on the way out to give them some verbal:

I’m glad I found out in time just what a partnership with a pair of wankers like you would’ve been. A sleeping partner’s one thing, but you’re in a fucking coma! No wonder you got an energy crisis your side of the water!”

He goes on, blustering that he’s got a back up partner – the Germans.

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“But us British, we’re used to a bit more vitality, imagination…The days when Yanks could come over here and buy up our shit are definitely over. What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given the World: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an hot dog, know what I mean?”

On that defiant note, he leaves, calling up his car, failing to notice that Victoria, who he left moments before, is no longer in the back. The car speeds off, throwing him back in the seat, and he sees Victoria’s silently screaming face pressed to the glass of a car speeding past in the opposite direction. A very young Pierce Brosnan pops up from where he was hiding on the passenger seat, training a silenced gun on him (actually a piece of tape on the window – the actors never met).

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Harold realises he’s royally screwed this time: an incredible range of emotions play across his face in an unblinking close up, everything from stunned incredulity, calculation, a bitter smile, furious indignation, then final sullen acceptance. It pre-empts the ending of The Sopranos as both music and image cut to silent black screen for two seconds (Harold’s last moment?) before the final credits. The Long Good Friday is an astonishing character study and a towering performance from Hoskins, who sadly announced his retirement in 2012 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (Bob sadly passed away on 29 April 2014 after his illness, with pneumonia). We salute you Bob, in the words of your inestimable character: “It’s Good Friday. Have a Bloody Mary.”




Originally posted 2013-03-28 22:09:36. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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