Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 27, 2017
(You want spoilers? We got spoilers! Tons of ‘em! Beware!)
He’s not very big in stature but thinks he is. Put another way, he realizes he can be physically imposing but likes to think his true power comes from his ability to sway people to his side, including wealthy foreigners who, he insists, will pay for his real estate project. They’re even coming to meet with him to discuss it and, as far as he is concerned, he is at the top of his game. This is his shining moment, when he will consolidate power and respect, and finally show everyone how much they’ve underestimated him. Then, for reasons this little man cannot understand, his world begins to fall apart. Hidden enemies lurk behind every door and, even though it’s clearly a lie, he trys to assure everyone around him that he’s hugely popular and everything is under control. That’s Harold Shand, gangster with a chip on his shoulder, at the center of the 1979 crime thriller The Long Good Friday.
Harold Shand, as played masterfully by Bob Hoskins (but I probably don’t need to tell you that), is a small, petty man who wants something more than respect, he wants legitimacy. He’s sure he will get it when his big development scheme on the London docks comes to fruition after he secures the funding he needs for the project. He doesn’t have the money himself but is sure he can get someone else to pay for it. And why shouldn’t they? After all, as Shand never tires of reminding everyone, he negotiated peace in the London underworld that has lasted for ten years. Everything is going well for him. He even has a beautiful and intelligent mistress that supports him and guides him when he needs it. And there are so many people loyal to him. What can go wrong?
That’s when the bombs start going off. And the deaths start mounting. And the feeling that people are out to get him becomes clear, but who? And why?! Why are they ruining his perfectly good opportunity to show everyone how great he is?! Don’t they know this is the worst possible time they could have chosen?! Don’t they know that?! The foreign investors, the so-called Mafia, are getting nervous about putting money behind a project run by a man so clearly out of control and undisciplined. He needs to find out soon who is doing this to him and why.
Then he finds out. It was one of his own loyalists who implicated him to the IRA, the group responsible for the bombings. Why did his ally implicate Shand as the person responsible for killing IRA terrorists, even though Shand wasn’t responsible? Because, amazingly, he was being tortured and gave false information to stop the torture. Funny how it works that way.
So where does this leave Shand? Well, he needs to set everything back in order and at the same time maintain his image as a strong man in control of his own world. He could set up a meeting with those responsible, explain what happened and pay them for their time. And why wouldn’t he? What good would come of promising to pay them but then not paying them in the end? How would that work out better? How would not paying them but simply killing them help him? Well, it wouldn’t, but he doesn’t seem to understand that.
Eventually, the Mafiosos tell him to take a hike and all he can think to do is tell them nobody needs them and he’s got somebody better. And then he gets into his car and finds out that his loyalists aren’t anywhere to be found and there’s a guy in the front seat who looks an awful lot like James Bond with a gun pointed at him. He sees his mistress in another car with more guys just like the James Bond guy and clearly they work for the IRA. She’s being taken away to be murdered and it’s pretty damn clear the same fate awaits him. Remarkably, nothing worked out the way he wanted.
Then, in a quite extraordinary final shot, the camera lingers on Shand, sitting in the back seat, thinking about… well, we don’t know exactly but thanks to the man playing him, we have a pretty good idea. He’s thinking about everything, all of it. He’s thinking about every mistake he ever made. He’s thinking about how he could have gotten into this, and how he could have gotten out of it. He’s thinking about how great it would have been if just one thing had gone his way. He’s thinking, probably, that he deserves this. Not because he’s a bad man, although he is, but because he let his guard down and anyone who lets his guard down is weak. He’s weak. He should have seen this coming.
Bob Hoskins enjoyed breakout success with this movie and despite a well rounded film career, albeit too short, he never got a better role. Harold Shand ranks alongside Tom Powers, Enrico Bandello, and the two Tonys of Scarface, Camonte and Montana, as a character who thinks power will ultimately immunize him against threat. Like them, he’s wrong. And the movie hearkens back to an era in which the criminal was not as romanticized as they were in the dark, smoky rooms of The Godfather. Shand is tacky, gaudy, and crass. He’s a classless guy who thinks ostentatious shows of wealth, like a yacht on the Thames, place him in a higher societal sphere. It doesn’t but he’s determined to believe it does.
The Long Good Friday is available on Filmstruck under their Neo Noir theme. If you haven’t seen it, don’t wait until Easter, see it now. If you have seen it, watch it again. It makes any long Friday feel shorter.
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