7 MARCH 1981, Page 26


Blood and guts

Peter Ackroyd

The Long Good Friday ('X', selected cinemas) An English gangster film? The idea brings back memories of Ealing Studios — of detectives wearing trilbies, of hunted men taking refuge in the crowds at Madame Tussaud's,of endless cups of tea being drunk and pipes smoked, of police cars agonisingly delayed at railway crossings, In those days, the villains used to `go quietly' when arrested; even when they put up 'a hell of a fight', they never actually seemed to hurt anyone. The general tone was one of jocularity combined with moments of fitful drama. The Long Good Friday, 'the gangster film of the Eighties' as someone is bound to call it, touches lightly upon the same tone only to demonstrate that it has gone sour now, and slightly creepy. Crime is not what it used to be: the professionals have taken over from the gentlemen.

The plot is intricate, and leaks out in such small stages that it never becomes clear until the end. A London gang leader, Harry, is about to develop a property site on the banks of the Thames; he already has the police and the local councillors in his capacious pocket, and has now brought in the Mafia in order to help finance his grandiose project, which has something to do with a ludicrous 'Olympics 88' in London. But, like anything to do with the Olympics, his plans begin to fall apart — his empire is subjected to a series of unexplained bombings and killings. Who is trying to unnerve, or destroy, him? The answer eventually given is extravagant, but credible.

In a certain sense, the film follows the classic pattern of the gangster film. Harry, a fat, balding hoodlum — played here with relish by Bob Hoskins — exudes all the cheap Cockney sentiment we have grown to know and hate. He wears bright check jackets; his shoes are brown; his rings are too large. As his boat drifts up the Thames, the French chef dices the vegetables, champagne is poured and Harry wallows in the false nostalgia of a native Londoner: `I'm not a politician,' he announces to his assembled guests, `I'm a businessman with a sense of history'. His values are, in other words, entirely conventional — he hates blacks and foreigners, and he remains one of the few Englishmen with a pronounced sense of class: 'The Americans really think they've arrived when the upper classes treat them like shit'. Harry is the cheeky chappie, the lovable old villain who will only kill someone when it's absolutely necessary, an admirer, no doubt, of Vera Lynn. His problem, however, is that be sees himself in eiactly these terms. The Long Good Friday is the case history of a man Who wakes up to reality too late to understand it.

The images of the film, for example, tell a different story. The director, John Mac Kenzie, presents a London which is quite unlike the bustling and lively metropolis of the Cockney imagination. For much of the time the place seems completely empty, the streets clammy and unfamiliar as if the city's hfe were spread thinly. Even death here has no grandeur; when one of Harry's lieutenants is murdered in a swimming pool, the body is dispatched to an abattoir in an ice-cream van. 'A lot of dignity in that, isn't there,' complains the now tattled Harry, 'going out like a raspberry ripple.'

The absence in this film of glamour, or posturing heroics, is. 1 think, due to the influence of television. It has added a new horror to crime, The Long Good Friday has the look, and even the tone, of television drama; it is flat, unrhetorical, immediate. If one were to compare it with any contemporary American gangster film — even an overtly 'realistic' one like Cassavetes's Gloria — it would seem far less melodramatic, more abrupt, generally more earthbound, As a result, the violence in the film has a torrid authenticity — when a black pimp has his buttocks slashed with a large knife, or when a jugular is pierced and the blood spurts out like water from a broken tap, the mundanity and the gratuitousness of the scenes make them seem even worse than the real thing.

Like all gangster films, however, The Long Good Friday depends for its effects upon the unfolding of a straightforward narrative, and the only important question it raises is — what happens next? There is a general sense of anticipated violence throughout the film, which maintains the tension almost too well. Whenever the film veers away from this basic pattern — when, for example, it tries to explore the relationship between Harry and his mistress, played sotto voce by Helen Mirren — it becomes trite and tawdry. But this is a small complaint; the film lingers in the mind as an exposure of one man's illusions about himself and his world. Reality intrudes upon him like the hands around someone's neck. Harry boasts towards the end of the film that, 'Us British have a bit more vitality and imagination'; and then, moments later, he is kidnapped to face certain execution. The camera lingers upon his face — dumb' founded, desperate, old now — as he is driven away by the IRA.