The skull beneath the skin

Harold Shand makes his entrance

The first X-rated film I saw was The Long Good Friday. It was 1981, I was nineteen, and a little apprehensive about the promised violence that only someone of the age I had now attained was permitted to see.

The opening scenes of the film were confusing. Money was being changed hands, clearly illicitly. The notes were carried in a suitcase from one destination to another. Three men in a remote house were handed the money, only to have men with guns burst in on them as they started to count it. Elsewhere a man was stabbed to death outside a swimming pool. A widow got out of a car and spat on one of two men seated at a pavement cafe, discussing deals. What was going on?

The electronic music, which had quietly racked up the tension, turned to a pounding deep beat as a British Airways Concorde airplane arrived at Heathrow. This is the moment. The music rises to a swaggering earworm of a riff. In comes the face of the man whose fate we are to witness, filling the screen, as the camera tracks his progress. It is simultaneously powerful and mocking, revealing someone at the heart of the dark world to which we have been introduced, who does not yet know how vulnerable he is.

So we meet Harold Shand, London’s gangster overlord, played by Bob Hoskins. There can be few better entrances in all of cinema history – certainly you could not hope for better. I was watching the film again recently following the news of the death of Francis Monkman, the progressive rock musician whose inspired score confirmed the film’s greatness. There were so many dire British film scores at the time, when cost-cutting meant music via a synthesizer rather than an orchestra. The Long Good Friday should have been another such film, tripped up by economy and poor taste. Instead Monkman came up with music that ideally complemented Shand’s rise and fall. We fear him but we laugh at his pretension – nervously, when we think he won’t notice us.

I knew at nineteen that here was a great film, an electrifying tale of gangsterdom and hubris, in which all of the required elements fell into place perfectly. It was written by Barrie Keeffe and directed by John Mackenzie. It tells of Harold Shand, a London gangster who has reached the top of his particular tree and now plans to become legitimate (relatively so – he is seeking funding from the American Mafia) by investing in the rebuilding of London Docklands, ready for the 1988 Olympic Games. But at the point when he is about to make the final deal, he is undermined by an adversary whose methods lie outside his understanding.

Harold and Victoria

The film had an easy production history but a difficult distribution one. The power of the script was appreciated by cast and crew, the most significant changes being made, in effect, by Helen Mirren. She demanded that her character Victoria, Shand’s girlfriend, be much more than the cardboard moll that had been scripted. Victoria had to be a powerful, capable figure in her own right. By making Victoria Harold’s equal in wit and intelligence, the film is hugely enriched. Everyone fears Harold except Victoria; only she can control him; only she has his respect.

The presence of IRA in the film caused nervousness among the film’s investors. It led to it being shelved for over a year, then almost released in a bowdlerised form on TV, until HandMade Films, newly-formed by George Harrison and Denis O’Brien, came to the rescue. They took on the risk and rightly enjoyed the rewards. Its excellence was immediately recognised, and its reputation has continued to grow to where it now viewed as one of the finest British films from any era and a masterpiece of the gangster genre.

Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren in The Duchess of Malfi, via The Helen Mirren Archives

Back in 1981 I was in a particularly privileged position, as the previous year I had seen Adrian Noble’s production of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Its lead performers were Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, with a sensational supporting cast that included Pete Postlethwaite, Sorcha Cusack, Julian Curry and Mike Gwilym. It too was an electrifying production, images and sounds from which still resonate in my head. The way Hoskins, playing Bosola, uttered the famous words “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied / Which way please them” was so comic, so bitter, so true to what we were seeing of figures who had fought against fate and lost. Thrilled beyond measure, I saw the production three times (the Royal Exchange being a threatre-in-the-round, I was able to see the play from a different angle each time).

Therefore, when I saw The Long Good Friday a few months later, it was with The Duchess of Malfi in mind. I knew these two and could see their world played out again in London’s dockland in the 1980s. Where previously it had been a scheming cardinal and duke that condemned them, now it was the IRA. In play and film, they had the same faces, and somehow spoke with the same voice.

The Long Good Friday is often described as being like a Shakespeare tragedy. Shand’s arrogance then fall, in the face of powers greater than himself, the goodness (of a kind) mixed with evil, the failure to understand himself until it is too late, the keen study of power relations – these aspects are all recognisably Shakespearean. Macbeth would seem to be the closest comparison.

Harold, after killing the man who has betrayed him

However, it is worthwhile considering the film’s affinity with Jacobean drama in general, particularly (though not exclusively) John Webster. There was a school of Jacobean dramatists who shared Shakespeare’s stages and who wrote dark tragedies for dark times – Thomas Middleton, Cyril Tourneur, John Marston, John Ford, and pre-eminent among them Webster, for his plays The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Such tragedies reflected the unease flt at the start of the reign of James I. The dramatists saw an unstable state, where morality and value were lost, where the virtuous life was hard to find and hard to live. It was risky to set such feelings in a British setting, so they turned to Italy or Spain, filled with demonic dukes and carnal cardinals, which is what we find in The Duchess of Malfi. But the audience knew where the true location was.

There is no plot similarity between The Long Good Friday and The Duchess of Malfi. The first concerns a London gangster, Harold Shand, who grows increasingly desperate, and violent, when he finds members of his entourage being killed by some unknown party. When one of the corrupt policemen in his pay tells him that the party responsible is the IRA and that he is getting out of his depth, Shand does not listen. He tackles them as he would any ordinary gangster rival, and pays the price for his folly.

Helen Mirren (Duchess) and Pete Postlethwaite (Antonio) in 1980 dress rehearsal, via BBC Arts

The Duchess of Malfi, which is based on an actual historical case, concerns the fall of the eponymous duchess after she marries in secret to her steward Antonio, against the wishes of her brothers, the Cardinal and Duke, the one a cold and calculating hypocrite, the other close to mania in his rages. They may want her wealth or (in the case of the duke) have incestuous desires towards her. At any rate, she has no right to thoughts of her own. The duke employs a former servant and galley slave, Bosola, to spy on her, which he does faithfully while increasingly despising them and himself as the story descends into madness and retributive murder, leaving none of the main protagonists alive by the end of it.

The lead male and female parts in play and film are different. Bosola is a servant, Shand a king-like gangland leader. The duchess is nobility and the title character, Victoria is a supporting role in someone else’s tragedy. They are lovers in the film, not in the play. But if there is no plot similarity, tonally and thematically there is plenty shared between the two works. One of the reasons the film had such a charge to it, for the lucky few who saw the Royal Exchange Theatre’s production, was that it felt so close to the film, as if Bosola and the duchess had morphed into Harold and Victoria, either pair transported forward or back in time to the same moral mayhem, in which no good person can hope to survive.

Harold giving his Thames speech – “Our country is not an island anymore.
We’re a leading European state.”

Harold Shand a good person? Well, not conventionally so, but he has his idea of what is good, and believes in it. He believes in order, loyalty, honour. He is resolutely proud of his city and country. He pities the disadvantaged and bemoans a deteriorating society. “Is there no decency in this disgusting world?” he says when he finds evidence of drug use in the house of someone he is interrogating (whom he has slashed with a knife to make him speak). As brutal and criminal as he is, we root for him. He stands for something.

Bosola is similarly admirable, in spite of himself. He does the duke’s bidding, and continues to do so even when he can see where it is leading and that the duchess is an innocent victim. But in his understanding of the evil world into which he has been sucked we see goodness, because he knows what evil is and believes there is goodness somewhere. He is that standard Jacobean character type, the malcontent (about which I have written before), one who understands the corruption about him but can only fall victim to it.

The witness silenced (a dead man’s hand is also a plot element in The Duchess of Malfi)

Harold Shand is no malcontent, though like those Jacobeans he is disturbed by a changing society and a loss of values. Instead, a closer link between Amalfi and London is religion and retribution. The Duchess of Malfi is a play steeped in sin. Its plot-line could be boiled down to a fall into a hell-pit. The duke denies that there is a soul in his fevered desire to bring his sister to despair, while in the final scene the cardinal has these almost calm thoughts about a book he is reading, little knowing they are almost the last words he will utter:

I am puzzl’d in a question about hell :
He says, in hell there’s one material fire,
And yet it shall not burn all men alike.
Lay him by. How tedious is a guilty conscience!
When I look into the fishponds in my garden,
Methinks I see a thing, arm’d with a rake
That seems to strike at me.

The Duchess of Malfi comes out of a world in which religion imbued every aspect of life. The Long Good Friday is the product of a secular age, but there is plenty there that Webster’s audience might have recognised. Fairly obviously, there is is the fact that it takes place over Good Friday, with a bomb placed outside a Catholic church being one of the film’s most striking set pieces. The mass that was being held there was attended by Shand’s mother, so it is a reasonable inference that Shand himself was brought up in the Catholic faith. We hear nothing else about this, though scriptwriter Barrie Keeffe does throw in this cheeky line for Shand:

Who’d do such a thing, it’s outrageous. Outside a church… You don’t go crucifying people outside a church on Good Friday.

But there is plenty going on to puzzle one of his background, even deliberately staged to taunt him. Why does the IRA (peopled by Roman Catholics, one assumes), place a bomb outside a Catholic church? Why does it effectively crucify a security guard witness by nailing him to a floor? What ironic message are they trying to send? In this drama of retribution, how come the IRA does not meet any retribution of its own? And isn’t Shand some sort of parody Christ-figure, betrayed by a Judas in his own camp, as he is led by stages, like the Christian stations of the cross, to his own crucifixion?

Harold questions his rivals in an abattoir

Another link between play and film is theatricality. The Long Good Friday is a remarkably theatrical film. It has scenes, dramatic confrontations, and a series of visual shock moments such as a Jacobean audience would have recognised. It paces itself like a Jacobean tragedy, every action building on the previous one to result in a bloody final act such as Webster would have would have understood as necessary. It has the unreal reality of the stage. It would work superbly in blank verse.

More than blood-soaked conclusions where half the cast lie on the stage having stabbed one another, there are set pieces in the film which seem almost uncannily Jacobean in their imagination. The Duchess of Malfi has a scene in which the duchess is terrorised by a staged group of madmen, before being strangled, and another where the deranged duke could be turning into a wolf (“Pray thee, what’s his disease?” “A very pestilent disease, my lord, They call lycanthropia”). The notorious scene in the film where Shand rounds up other London gangster leaders in an abattoir and questions them as they hang upside-down, like pieces of meat, could have come straight out of Webster’s imagination. It gets the blend of horror and humour just right. Shand’s killing of Jeff (played by the late Derek Thompson) with a broken bottle has the impulsive rage of a time, so ably captured by Shakespeare, Webster and the rest, when rivals would reach for their swords in an instant, blind to consequences.

Victoria consoles Harold

With all this said, it has to be pointed out that The Duchess of Malfi had no influence on The Long Good Friday. Perhaps Barrie Keeffe had some thoughts about Shakespeare, since the film does come across as Shakespeare-like, not least in its concentration on the gaining and loss of power, one of Shakespeare’s pre-eminent themes. Webster has no such interest, or rather his skills lay elsewhere – the loss of souls, perhaps.

But there is something there, beyond Hoskins and Mirren acting in both film and play within a short period, and looking as though one was the extension of the other. The Long Good Friday is a gangster film. It is recognisably one of a genre of films whose tropes are quickly understood by an audience. The gangster lives outside the law and is continually at war with the law. They are defined by their need to have those who enforce such laws, so that they have something to battle against. They have a gang that they must control. They fight to sustain the little world over which, for a time, they have power. They must fail in the end, to satisfy the audience’s need for safety. Harold Shand is Ned Kelly, John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow and Ma Barker. His fate has been set out, the moment we see him.

The revenge tragedies of the Jacobean era were a genre too. The audience knew exactly what they were to be offered. They would see noble figures (probably from Italy or Spain, where you would expect such goings-on), bound in mutual distrust, transgressing the laws of god and society, damning themselves. There will be an innocent victim. There will be a conflicted intermediary. It all ends in a bloodbath which stretches the limits of credulity. The uninteresting good guys get to give the final speech. It’s the story (with variations) of Hamlet (strictly speaking an Elizabethan drama), of The Revenger’s Tragedy, Women Beware Women, The Changeling, Bussy D’Ambois, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Duchess of Malfi. Though 20th-century city criminals and Renaissance courtiers are worlds apart, each are imprisoned in little worlds which they think they can control, only to find that they are unable to escape their downfall. Outside the forces of law and order and undramatic rationality lie waiting. The Duchess and Bosola, and Harold and Victoria, would recognise one another. They are each victims of the predestination of plot.

“I am Duchess of Malfi still”. The duchess meets her end, via The Helen Mirren Archives

“Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin”. So T.S. Eliot famously wrote in ‘Whispers of Immortality’. The Long Good Friday is much possessed by death. Every character lives in its shadow, just one stab or explosion away from oblivion. They know that they have transgressed and that their time is short.

Our first and final sights of Harold Shand are of his head. There is that short but telling tracking shot, focussed on a head filled with hopes and apprehension, that introduces him to us in the airport. Then there is his final downfall, when he is driven away in a car by the IRA (he sees a despairing Victoria being taken away in a separate car). In a similar but longer tracking shot, the camera focusses tightly on his face, as his thoughts turn from rage to calculation to resignation. This will be his final journey. His entrance and his exit complement one another. In each we look deeply into the man and see that skull, only thinly hidden beneath the skin.

Harold Shand make his exit



View all posts by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *