At the Movies

Michael Wood

Harold Shand, the fictional chief mobster in The Long Good Friday (1980), now showing in a restored version at the BFI, is played by Bob Hoskins in one of his great early performances. It’s hard to imagine that another actor could have displayed the required combination of energy and disarray so well. This character’s problem is that he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, and doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know.

‘Colin never hurt a fly,’ Shand says. ‘Well, only when it was necessary. It was always clean.’ Colin is a newly dead friend and henchman, and it’s Shand’s outrage that is speaking rather than his actual memory of the person. He takes the same tone about a bomb explosion that has killed his chauffeur and might have killed his mother. ‘You don’t go crucifying people outside a church, not on Good Friday.’ The writing is sharp and funny here, but Shand is bewildered rather than ridiculous. His men are clean by his standards; there are things you don’t do, even when you’re engaged in a killing. The trouble is that his standards have suddenly become out of date, the world he ruled has ended, although he can’t yet read the signs.

Another bomb goes off, in a pub this time, and would have killed Shand and his mistress and his guests if they had arrived five minutes earlier. He still doesn’t understand. He thinks a rival gang must be trying it on, even though, as he keeps saying, the London underworld has known peace for ten years. This peace is Shand’s great diplomatic achievement, a preparation for his new role as lord of the as yet undeveloped Docklands, and partner of a sinister American figure played by Eddie Constantine – better known as the incarnation of Lemmy Caution (in a series of French thrillers and in Godard’s Alphaville). There is a wonderful image here of constriction in the midst of power. Shand not only thinks like a gangster, he thinks only of gangsters. He doesn’t believe there are any other persons or bodies with agency in the world, especially since he has bought off the police and the politicians. And the film’s great set piece, a scene in an abattoir, where Shand’s suspected near-peers hang upside down among raw sides of beef, turns out to be a picture not of strength or even weakness but of sheer ludicrous helplessness. There’s no point in torturing them, they aren’t behind the bombings and the killing, they don’t know anything.

The director, John Mackenzie, uses an elegant stylistic effect to make this point, so that we get it subliminally before we are anywhere near working out its contours. The camera keeps arriving at a scene – a country cottage seen from a small distance, the interior of the same cottage glimpsed through its windows, a swimming pool, the pub that is about to be blown up – when nothing has yet happened there. The technique makes the very idea of seeing ominous. All we have to do is wait, and in case we’re not expectant enough, the music, by Francis Monkman, usually signals the upcoming violent event. The slight heaviness of this touch has more to do with the date of the film than the composer’s or the director’s taste, and the theme music that accompanies Shand as he struts about works wonderfully well, offering a fine aural portrait of the gangster’s cheerful, if deluded manner.

Another great effect of timing involves another kind of delay. If Shand doesn’t know what is happening to him, he isn’t alone. The audience doesn’t know either until almost two thirds of the way through the film. We see all kinds of things he doesn’t see; we know that he and his operations are under severe and startling attack, but we don’t know any more than he does what person or group is attacking him.

The writer, Barrie Keeffe, says he was thinking of the Kray brothers when he wrote the part of Shand, and of the IRA as he developed the plot. ‘My pitch was terrorism meets gangsterism.’ What has happened is that one of Shand’s paid-off politicians has got involved with the IRA in Belfast, various mix-ups and deaths have occurred, and Shand is blamed, although he knows nothing about it, since he was away when the mess arose. The beauty of the meeting of the two isms is what it reveals about Shand’s mentality. He believes no one is tougher than he is, and that everyone can be paid off; and he is certainly scary enough when he kills a disobedient sidekick with a broken bottle. For a moment we think, as he thinks, that he can take care of the IRA. He pretends to hand over a suitcase full of money, and has a local leader shot. Triumphant and happy, he goes to pick up his American colleagues at the Savoy. ‘Everything’s all right,’ he says. ‘All the troubles are over.’ They are planning to leave, however, seeing Britain as far too uncertain a zone for investment – indeed, they compare it to Vietnam and Cuba. At this point Shand makes a memorable if idiotic speech that has become famous well outside the movies. He says goodbye to the Americans, pauses with his back to them, then turns and harangues them about British culture, which involves ‘vitality, imagination, a touch of the Dunkirk spirit’, and the future of the Common Market.

The scene is funny, but a little too broad, and the film’s lurking allegory glares out at us a bit too nakedly. Shand and his ambitions belong to the early Thatcher years, gangsters and entrepreneurs have similar economic goals and plans for development. Nationalism, as distinct from nationalisation, is far from dead. It’s an echo of the old analogy between crime and business, still good for a rant if nothing else. The snag with this view as a matter of history is that in 1980 Margaret Thatcher was just getting going, and her successors in both parties have scarcely swerved from her plan. The unfortunate Shand doesn’t get beyond the Savoy courtyard before he is kidnapped. His days really are done.

The interesting point is not the political one. It’s the one already figured in the abattoir. There is something comic and terrible about the sight of a clever mind trapped in its own limitations. Well, not just a mind, a whole masterful personality unable to detect key changes in the reality around it. We don’t, I think, feel there is anything particularly moral about this picture, it isn’t a matter of comeuppance, of pride leading to a fall. It’s a portrait of blindness, or of seeing without seeing.

Even the wonderful last frames of the film may leave us there. Shand is shut up in the kidnappers’ car, a gun trained on him. Apart from occasional glances at the gunman’s face, the camera just watches Shand in close-up for more than two minutes. At first he seems to grin in a troubled fashion, ready to think his way out of this spot, then his face settles into worry, and then into a kind of blank. It is this blankness that allows us to think he may finally have understood who or what his new enemies are; have glimpsed the pathetic, failing range of his old methods and the emergence of the new world. But the most we can say is that he is beginning to see something of the scope of what he doesn’t know.

There is a special pleasure in seeing films through the lens of the meantime. We didn’t know in 1980, as we know now, that Paul Freeman, who plays the murdered Colin, would appear the next year in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that Pierce Brosnan, representing the person who kills Colin and later stares at Shand in the car, would go on to become Remington Steele and James Bond. Here he is credited simply as ‘First Irishman’. We might, on the other hand, see more continuity between Helen Mirren’s part as Shand’s mistress and many of her subsequent roles, not because the roles are similar or because she is always the same but because she can’t (and shouldn’t) shut down the glint of sceptical intelligence which tends to remind us that all acting can be seen as over-acting. But then this perhaps is what the time-lapse vision suggests more generally. Gangsters, archaeologists, private eyes, spies, molls, police detectives, monarchs: they all have to pretend to know a little more than they do, and in the movies we know they’re pretending.