Note: Spoilers galore! This is a shot-by-shot study of the ending of The Long Good Friday, the 1980 British mob movie starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Don’t read past the title card unless you’ve already seen the movie or you don’t care about the ending.
Seeing The Long Good Friday in my junior year or so of high school really did something to me. It’s one of my high school film experiences that affected me greatly and definitely changed the way I look at movies. So I guess you could say it’s one of the most memorable of my late-teens cinematic experiences.
Before I saw it, anyone could have asked me to rattle off a list of mob movies. Not the greatest, not my favorite, just a list of films involving gangsters. I would’ve only been able to mention the obvious and “popular” titles: Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Casino, Carlito’s Way, Road to Perdition, Donnie Brasco… maybe I would have even mentioned The Untouchables (even though I hadn’t, and still haven’t, seen it).
Nonetheless, this was the extent of my knowledge on gangster flicks. I had no idea about Bob le flambeur, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Public Enemy, Rififi, and a plethora of others. There were mob movies just waiting for me to discover them that were without color, with subtitles, with actors I had never seen before, with stories that took a different spin on the whole mob genre. And what really impressed me is that some of these unbeknownst-to-me movies played the usual gangster game — but they did it even better than the so-called “classics.”
So does The Long Good Friday. What separates this from the rest of the pack? An explosive performance from Bob Hoskins (this and Mona Lisa are what made me fall in love with him), the hardcore violence (what externalizes his pain more than seeing him stab someone in the face with a broken wine bottle?) and the idea embedded in the story that a mob movie could be driven not by plot but the audience’s interest in a character.
Yes, the story has the action cranked up to an eleven, but The Long Good Friday is very much a character study of Hoskin’s character, Harold. As brutal and zig-zagging and in-your-face as the movie is, we don’t really get the full dose until we see the ending, which is probably the best element of the movie.
The “ending” as I define it (right after the violent climax, which leads us to believe everything is settled and over with) begins at about this frame.
Now, a film professor from this past semester suggested that once a character moves out of frame, there is a new composition, and the audience is left thinking about what in this environment he or she is supposed to be looking at. In this shot, the cars do all the directing.
The car in the foreground has Harold and his moll, Victoria (played by the precious Helen Mirren), and there’s a car in the background. Whose? I dunno. At this point, we aren’t asking questions, just curious to see the denouement, what’s left to be tied up.
Harold’s car makes a left turn, but soon becomes out of sight. The other car turns on its headlights and comes toward the camera.
We are now focused on this car. But why? We don’t know whose it is, so why do we all of a sudden subconciously care about this car? Is there something we don’t know? Is all this conflict over yet?
The mystery car leaves the frame, and Harold’s car parks in front of the hotel. His vehicle all of a sudden looks as if it’s out in the open, naked for attack, like a sitting duck.
“You wait here… I won’t be a minute,” he tells Victoria as he gets out the car. She even seems a little nervous. Can everything be this perfect?
He shuts the door (thus turning off the light in the car and leaving her in darkness) and goes into the hotel.
Harold walks to the front desk, asking where he can find Charlie (his potential business partner from America).
Now we’re inside the room, and a tracking shot directs us to the radio, which is reporting about the events that happened during the climax (I don’t want to spoil too much). Someone knocks at the door, as the person on the radio announces their “political correspondent gives you the facts behind the headlines.” An arm enters the frame and turns off the device, as if to silence it.
The same person answers the door, and Harold enters, looking for Charlie.
“Everything’s all right,” says Harold, all smile as he enters the room. “All the troubles are over.” Charlie doesn’t seem to be in a good mood, almost as if he is unhappy to see Harold.
Harold (now he’s not happy) finds out that Charlie is leaving due to all the recent violence: “a couple days that turned out to be another St. Valentine’s Massacre,” says Charlie.
“But that’s settled,” pleads Harold, “once and for all.” This guy requests a porter and a cab.
Harold really can’t believe what’s happening before his eyes. “You two can’t wait to get out of here, can you?” He’s a bit offended.
Charlie becomes sarcastic: “I always react like that to bombs blowing up, mass murders. It’s a hang up of mine.”
Harold finds it funny that Americans can’t handle the “little problem” between two rival gangs here in Britain.
Charlie: “…’a little problem.’ Harold, this is like a bad night in Vietnam!”
“I’ve pulled the plug on them!” says Harold. He’s convinced that he has everything under control.
“We do not deal with gangsters, period,” says the other guy. “You’re a mess.” Harold knows where they’re coming from, and Charlie tells Harold goodbye.
Harold bids them adieu, and he tries to take this slap-in-the-face with stride.
But he stops in the doorway and turns around Columbo-style, almost as if he was ready to say, “Oh, and one more thing…”
He’s got their attention. They thought they had him under control.
He’s taken all this very personally, and Harold calls them “wankers” and says how glad is that he hasn’t become business partners with them, considering they’re “in a f***ing coma,” as Harold puts it.
They try to take this affront with stride since that’s really their only option with someone as pissed-off as Harold, who then mentions the Americans’ energy crisis and their war that they started. Now he is getting personal with them.
“But us British, we’re used to a bit more vitality. Imagination… The days when Yanks could come over here and buy up [our shit] are definitely over.”
The guy on the right tries to defend Americans, but Charlie stops him in his tracks: “Shut up, you little streak of paralyzed piss.”
The following series of frame-grabs are part of a dolly shot toward Harold as he gives a speech about what he’s expecting about what he’s doing now, what he believes the future holds: “What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world. Culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than a hot dog. Know what I mean?” Watch how many expressions he zooms through in this short speech. (It’s even more amazing to watch in the movie.)
“My new deal is with Europe. I’m going into partnership with a German organization–yeah, the Krauts. They’ve got ambition, know-how, and they don’t lose their bottle.”
Harold offers another cocky, stinging insult, then he leaves. He really thinks that he has everything figured out.
Harold comes outside, pissed, and signals his car to come pick him up.
The car ominously turns on its headlights (just like the mystery vehicle earlier) and creeps hither.
This exact angle on the car holds for about a second or so, but because we are so focused on Harold, we don’t notice in the lower-left corner of the frame that someone is missing in the backseat.
He eases into the car…
…and it speeds off.
Harold is caught off-guard by the jerk of the car. “Where’s Victoria?” he notices.
This stare and the accompanying electronica music is all we need to answer Harold’s question.
He looks off-screen at something horrid.
A thug holds Victoria (Mirren silently screams in such a creepy, desperate performance in these few seconds) in the car against her will, his arm around her neck. It’s a moving shot (following with the movement of Harold’s car), and this active movement really gives this shot its full effect.
Harold is mad and ready to kill whoever is behind this.
But he’s too late. A thug in Harold’s car (yes, that’s a young Pierce Brosnan) sits up in the seat where he was hiding and points a gun at Harold.
Harold realizes he’s screwed and cornered. There is no retribution this time: there isn’t going to be a way out of this.
The driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror stare at Harold, as if to say, “Don’t move! We got you.”
Harold is in awe and isn’t quite absorbing everything: all this has come much to fast. The jazzy sax starts playing on the soundtrack, and he tries to piece everything together. He’s very mixed in his feelings: stunned, furious, defeated.
He even smiles, as if he’s in denial of the situation. He’s probably thinking, “This is a joke, right?” But he’s not getting any answers.
He winces. He doesn’t like that taste of defeat. And he’s especially frustrated because his questions don’t have the answer that he thought they did: What about his future? What about him and Victoria? Didn’t he have everything figured out? How could he ever be so wrong?
His face asks again, scared about whether what he believes is true: “This isn’t a joke, is it?” is what runs through his head.
As infectious as Bronsan’s smile is, we cringe, because this is a joke. But the joke is on Harold.
In Harold’s face (really, probably Hoskins’ best performance ever), we see how uncomfortable and dead he feels inside. We feel his pain.
He accepts his defeat in stride. Because there’s nothing he can do. No men to order around. He can’t kill anybody. He just sits there and waits for his future. Now he really wonders about what the future has in store for him.
Even though the film can’t reasonably cut straight to the credits and must go to black first, the black frame is an integral part of the ending. (The music even stops on the cut to black until the credits appear.) This two-second shot becomes a character not unlike the ending of the series finale of The Sopranos or, if you prefer, words written across a black frame in a Jean-Luc Godard film.
This nonethingness is what Harold feels and what he has to look forward to. Whether you believe in an afterlife of not is a moot point. For Harold, this (this frame, this moment that he’s been defeated, this second) is the end.