A few years back, Bob Hoskins was turning into his drive when he hit another car. He got out of the car to apologise, he says, but "he recognised me and his face dropped. I could see these guys hanging up on meat-hooks in his eyes." Such was the power of the seminal British gangster film The Long Good Friday.
Reissued this week on DVD, what is remarkable about The Long Good Friday is just how fresh it remains. It's also prophetic. Set on the cusp of the Eighties, as Hoskins puts it, "What was extraordinary about it was that we were just on the verge of Thatcherism. It hit the nail so firmly on the head, of where the Eighties were gonna go."
It didn't start that way. The film was written by Barrie Keefe, whose connections to the East End underworld lent the film its authenticity, but according to the director John MacKenzie the original script was "not very good". "They took the Mafia guy to Stratford and went to see Coriolanus. It was tongue-in-cheek, almost 'Carry on Down the Avon.' It degraded the good bit - this idea of this mogul-gangster."
After no less than eight rewrites, the script took shape. The film begins with London kingpin Harold Shand (played by Hoskins) at the peak of his powers. Keefe recalled the Krays, but Shand emerged as a more modern gangster. "I'm not a politician," he says. "I'm a businessman with a sense of history."
From the moment we see him striding through Heathrow as if he owns it, accompanied by Francis Monkman's remarkable score, Shand rules in the manner of a Roman emperor. Hoskins testifies that the real-life criminals on the set taught him how to behave. "They say, 'Naw, Bob - don't shout. Remember the man's dignity.' They wanted the boss to be a proper boss, not a prat."
Shand is a curious mixture: bigoted, bullish and above all patriotic, he laments the demise of England. Yet with his public-school educated wife (Helen Mirren), his yacht and his Rolls-Royce, he is nouveau riche. The only difference between Shand and those in the City is his willingness to hang opponents on meat hooks when he wants information.
If any scene summarises his capitalist spirit, it's the boat party Shand hosts to welcome his US counterparts, and broker a deal with the Mafia. As the revellers float down the Thames, past a Docklands on the verge of redevelopment, Shand announces: "Our country is not an island anymore. We're a leading European state. And I believe that this is the decade in which London will become Europe's capital."
Boasting a contemporary outlook, this was not the foggy East End of the Sixties but a city in transition. "I wanted it to be a vibrant city, expressing the feel of the time at the beginning of the Eighties and the flash but real feeling of Harold," adds MacKenzie.
So it's no surprise that Shand talks of a "new London" and toasts to "hands across the Ocean", a bond with his US guests that rather mirrored Thatcher's relationship with President Reagan. Indeed, it's his confrontation with the IRA, who set out to tear down his corporation after he crosses them, that most reflects upon the political situation of the day. You might even view Shand as envoy of Thatcher, as he foolishly promises to "crush them like beetles".
"The idea that we had a capitalist thug versus a committed terrorist was great," says MacKenzie, a fact that remains as resonant today. He admits he had sympathies with Harold's enemies. "I was not sympathetic to the violence. But I was sympathetic to the sense that they are committed people who do something for a cause."
While the film is as much about the IRA as, say, Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, it was this perceived pro-terrorist stance that led the film towards a difficult gestation. Released in 1981, it was actually shot at the end of 1979, the delay coming in part because the financiers at ITC, led by Lew Grade, disliked the film. "They thought it was unpatriotic, disparaging of the British army and promoting terrorism," says MacKenzie. "And Grade was frightened that bombs would go off in his cinema. Crazy!"
With MacKenzie away on holiday, the film was cut down by almost half-an-hour to 82 minutes with the idea that it was to be sold to US television. They even went as far as re-dubbing Hoskins' voice with an actor from Wolverhampton for fear American audiences wouldn't understand his Cockney accent. Outraged, Hoskins decided to sue - drumming up support from the British acting community.
Before the case went to court, MacKenzie and Hoskins managed to convince ITC to sell the film to Handmade Films, the company owned by George Harrison that had financed Monty Python's Life of Brian the year before. When it finally came out, Hoskins was hailed by those that he portrayed. "I met some top gangsters after filming, who said 'I've seen the film and I'm glad to say we're so proud one of our own is doing so well.' I've had letters from Freddie Foreman, Frankie Fraser - all the guys that are telling their stories now and want films made of their lives - saying I should do it!"
As it happens, rumours circulated that there was to be a sequel - despite the ending of the original, which left Shand at the mercy of the IRA. Thankfully Hoskins, who went on to play thugs in everything from The Cotton Club to Mona Lisa, backed out. But the British gangster film never quite scaled the same heights again. Mediocrity beset the genre after Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels inspired copycat film-makers to deliver cheeky post-modern movies that saw public school boys playing with shooters.
While there has never been a gangster film quite like The Long Good Friday again, you might argue that this is because it's a product of its time. These days, Harold Shand would probably be running a blue-chip company.
'The Long Good Friday - 25th Anniversary Edition' is out now on DVD, £15.99Reuse content