British Invaders Blogathon: Get Carter, The Long Good Friday, The Hit, and Mona Lisa
This is my long-overdue post for the second annual “British Invaders” blogathon, hosted by Terrence (A Shroud of Thoughts). Enjoy!
Before his death in 2014, Bob Hoskins had appeared in five feature films (as well as one made-for-TV film) with Michael Caine. Along with that, another thing they had in common was they appeared in three of the best gangster films to come out of Britain – Get Carter (which starred Caine), The Long Good Friday (which starred Hoskins), and Mona Lisa (which both of them were in, though Hoskins had the bigger role). In fact, Caine once told Hoskins those were the only three great gangster films to come out of Britain. I’m not completely familiar with British gangster films, but I would say there have been others that are just as good, including The Hit, which came out not long before Mona Lisa. What all four of them have in common is they’re all more than gangster films; Get Carter is a classic revenge tale, The Long Good Friday uses the gangster-as-businessman model that’s served, among others, the first two Godfather films (as well as doubling as a political thriller), The Hit is an existential road movie, and Mona Lisa grafts the gangster genre onto a classic fairy tale.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for all four movies.
When the gangster film became one of the more popular genres in Hollywood in the pre-Code 1930’s, a few of the most memorable ones were inspired by real-life gangsters. In particular, both Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932) were thinly-disguised films about Al Capone (though, of course, in real life, Capone didn’t meet his end like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni’s characters did in their respective films). In Britain, meanwhile, the Krays – twin brothers Reginald and Ronnie – and Charlie Richardson became notorious in the 50’s and 60’s, but for the most part, gangster films made in Britain still used the characters of gangsters in a comic fashion.* But Caine wanted to play a gangster that was more in line with the real toughs he had known (as opposed to the ones he had played in the original versions of The Italian Job and Gambit), and when Michael Klinger, a producer he had decided to partner up with, brought him a novel called Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis, he knew he had found the vehicle to do so. Furthermore, both Caine and Klinger happened at the same night to watch a made-for-TV movie (for Playhouse) called “Rumour” – about a journalist out to expose prostitution – and realized Mike Hodges, the man who wrote and directed the feature, would be ideal to adapt Lewis’ novel, despite the fact Hodges had to this point never made a feature film before. Out of that came Get Carter, which seems to be generally regarded not only as the best British gangster movie ever made, but one of the best British movies ever made, period.
The novel and movie essentially follow the same story. Jack Carter (Caine) goes to his hometown, against the advice and wishes of his bosses Gerald (Terrence Rigby, who played Roy Bland in the miniseries version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Sid Fletcher (John Bindon, who also appeared in Performance the previous year), to find out why his estranged brother Frank (played in a cameo by Reg Niven, Klinger’s chauffeur) died of what seemed to be a drunk driving accident. Carter goes around asking, among others, his niece Doreen (Petra Markham) – who, though the novel makes this clearer, may also have been Carter’s biological daughter – Doreen’s mother Margaret (Dorothy White), Eric Paice (Ian Hendry, who was in The Avengers back when the John Steed character was the sidekick and not the star), whom Carter knew from the old days, Eric’s boss Cyril Kinnear (playwright John Osborne), Keith (Alun Armstrong), a friend of Frank’s, and Cliff (Bryan Mosely), a developer. While many of the people he asks insist Frank really did drink too much, Carter knows his brother wasn’t much of a drinker, and eventually finds out Frank’s death had to do with a porn film Doreen had appeared in.
On a blurb appearing on a re-issued version of the novel, British crime novelist Derek Raymond praises Lewis for following the dictum of Raymond Chandler – “The crime story tips violence out of its vase on the shelf and pours it back into the street where it belongs” – in writing the novel. Hodges seems similarly inspired to do so with the movie. The novel doesn’t specify what city Carter came from (except a steel town in middle England), but Hodges, having done time making documentaries for the BBC, and, as he put it, disillusioned by the failed promise of the 60’s to shatter the barriers of British society, decided to set the movie in northern England, specifically the town of Newcastle, a town he knew well, to show what had happened to that area of England. He and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (who had started out photographing documentary shorts) also filmed on location, so you can see the grime Carter had to wipe off himself to escape the town, and cast locals from the town whenever he could (as in the memorable scene when a woman (Denea Wilde) sings the classic standard “How About You” and gets into a fight with another woman). Also, except for Caine, and to a lesser extent Hendry and Britt Ekland (who plays Carter’s mistress in London), most of the actors in it were either unknowns (this was Armstrong’s first film) or locals, to make it seem more authentic.
In keeping with the documentary-style filmmaking Hodges brought to Lewis’ material was the depiction of violence. Instead of being the comic violence of, say, the Bond films, the bloodless violence of Production Code-era films, or the stylized violence of someone like Sam Peckinpah, Hodges films it cleanly, such as when Carter prevents a hood from getting out of the car by slamming the door into him. Per Caine’s dictum about wanting to show the physical toll violence took, we also see the after-effects, as when Carter visits Keith after he’s been beaten up by several of Kinnear’s men, and Keith is so bruised and battered he can’t even get out of bed. That also comes to play in the final scene of the film, when Carter gets shot and killed by J (Karl Howard), an assassin hired by Kinnear (and who, as it happens, was on the train ride Carter was on in the beginning of the film); Hodges and Suschitzky shoot it simply, without tricks, making it all the more shocking.** And the hardness Caine brings to the role is in tune with the documentary-like tone Hodges brings as well. Caine can be likable and charming on screen, but he foregoes all of that with his performance here. Other than anger, the only emotions he brings out in any significant way are disgust, both towards others and himself (as when he sees a family with children on a ferry and realizes how far he’s slipped), and sadness (when he sees Doreen in the porn film, tears fall from his eyes, though his face doesn’t change expression). Hendry apparently was originally promised the role of Carter, and never forgave Caine for getting it, so the tension between Carter and Eric on screen came from a real place (for his part, Caine claimed on the DVD commentary that Hendry was the type of heavy drinker Caine tried to stay away from). And Osborne is very good in the slimy role of Kinnear. The film became enough of a hit that it was remade twice, once in 1972 as Hit Man, a blaxploitation version with Bernie Casey in the Carter role (called Tyrone here), and once in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone in the title role (with Caine playing Cliff). What both of those remakes illustrate – aside from their pointlessness – is there’s a difference between *being* tough and *playing* tough. The remakes play at being tough, while the original is tough.
*-The Krays even inspired one of the classic Monty Python sketches, “The Piranha Brothers”, a mock news report about Dinsdale (who was a cruel man, but fair, even when he was nailing your wife’s head to the table) and Doug Piranha (grown men would tear their own heads off rather than face him, because of the way he used…sarcasm).
**-This was another change from the novel; Carter does die at the end, but it’s at the hands of Eric as Carter is killing him. The other major change is both Cliff and Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), Kinnear’s mistress, survive in the novel – they go to the police – but in the movie, Carter kills Cliff by throwing him off of a building, while Glenda dies because she’s in the trunk of a car (put there by Carter) that gets pushed into the river.
One of the best scenes in The Godfather is when Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) goes to a meeting with the heads of the other Five Families (as well as mobsters from other parts of the country), and they, led by Don Barzini (Richard Conte), try to convince him to take the deal he had rejected earlier; that is, go into the drug trade, which they would control, and Don Corleone would allow the others access to the politicians he’s been paying off. At the end of his pitch, Barzini acknowledges Don Corleone could, by rights, bill the other families for his services here; “After all, we are not Communists.” This line is meant to get a laugh, but it’s also a way of illustrating one of the themes of the film, on how gangsters had become like businessmen (what few could see, of course, is how many businessmen, inspired by the film, would go on to act like gangsters) and embraced the virtues of a capitalist system they nevertheless operated entirely outside of. The Long Good Friday, therefore, wasn’t breaking new ground in depicting the gangster as businessman (for that matter, neither was The Godfather), but it pushed the parallel even further by linking its gangster character to the pro-business philosophy of Margaret Thatcher (who had recently been elected Prime Minister of Britain), and contemplating what happened when it went up against a fanatical group, in this case the IRA.
Ironically, when writer Barrie Keeffe and producer Barry Hanson got together one night in the late 1977, they were merely looking to make a good gangster story (originally for TV), as Keefe had been fascinated by gangsters since encountering Ronnie Kray in a bathroom when Keefe was a teenager. But when Keeffe became disgusted with how his old neighborhood had been gentrified, and some time later, had found himself inside a pro-IRA bar in North London, he decided to combine those two strands into the gangster script he would write. Called The Paddy Factor (after the term Scotland Yard used for unsolved crimes that assumed the IRA were the culprit), the script eventually made its way to John Mackenzie, then known mostly for his work on television (though, ironically enough, he had just made his own gangster film, A Sense of Freedom, a biopic of Scottish gangster Jimmy Boyle). Mackenzie loved the main character of Harold Shand (played in the movie by Bob Hoskins, then best known as the sheet-music salesman in the BBC version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven), but felt the script was florid in many places and needed work. Out of that work came The Long Good Friday (a temporary title – used by Mackenzie because he felt the original title gave the movie’s plot twists away – that became the real title).
As the movie opens, Harold is sitting on top of the world; there’s been peace in the gangster world for the past 10 years, he’s made an awful lot of money, and he and his associates are about to make more, thanks to an upcoming deal he has with Charlie (Eddie Constantine), an American gangster who’s in town. Soon, however, Harold’s world starts to fall apart; Colin (Paul Freeman, soon to be best known as Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark), one of his best friends and closest associates, is knifed in a bathhouse (in his first film role, Pierce Brosnan plays the killer), a bomb goes off in the car taking Harold’s mother to church, killing the driver, and a bomb is found in a pub Harold owns. Not only that, but when Harold and Victoria (Helen Mirren), his mistress, take Charlie and his lawyer to another restaurant Harold owns for dinner, a bomb explodes inside right as they’re pulling up, injuring all of the staff and customers. While Victoria tries to placate Charlie and his lawyer Tony (Stephen Davies), Harold tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on, even pulling in some of the other gang bosses to interrogate them (in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Harold has them hung by hooks in a meatpacking plant). Eventually, Harold discovers it’s the IRA who’s involved – Jeff (Derek Thompson), another one of his closest associates, was paying the IRA to avoid troubles with them, but Colin robbed them, and when the IRA learned Colin was associated with Harold, they targeted Harold. Everyone tries to warn Harold not to mess with the IRA, including Jeff, Charlie, and Parky (Dave King), the police detective on Harold’s payroll, but Harold thinks they’re no more dangerous than the usual thugs he’s dealt with. Of course, Harold is proven wrong.
While Mackenzie insisted on beefing up the IRA angle, as he wanted not only to contrast the fanaticism of the IRA with the “it’s just business” attitude of Harold and the other gangsters, but also to contrast it with the Thatcher-like values Harold was espousing, it did prove for some rocky times when it came to getting the film released. The original company that was set to release it wanted to cut the film because of the IRA theme, and also dub over Hoskins’ voice. Hoskins eventually took them to court to get that stopped, and the producer bought the film back from the distributor, but it wasn’t until Eric Idle saw the film at a screening (at the behest of Hoskins or Mirren) and recommended it to Handmade Films (who had distributed Monty Python’s Life of Brian) that they picked up the film. And the IRA does add all of those elements to the film, making it more than just a gangster film. Of course, it’s also a character study, and Mackenzie and Keeffe bring that out as well. Early on in the film, George takes Charlie and other friends and associates (including Parky) on his boat, and announces the prospective partnership while they go under a bridge. Mackenzie and cinematographer Phil Meheux (who went on to shoot four more films for Mackenzie, including The Fourth Protocol, with Brosnan in a starring role this time) frame Harold in the center, making him a larger-than-life figure, which is of course setting him up for a fall. Harold at first seems to be, despite his working-class upbringing, a charming, if over-enthusiastic (Charlie has to warn Harold not to rush him), boss, and yet at the same time has to show the danger and anger lurking underneath, while also showing some vulnerability as well, and Mackenzie and Keeffe are able to bring all of that out.
A lot of that is due to Hoskins, of course, He makes Harold into a dynamo despite his stature (watch the way he walks through the airport in his first scene), yet also someone who’s smart and capable of grief despite his toughness (as when he hears of Colin’s death, and after he kills Jeff in a blind rage after discovering Jeff’s betrayal). The most memorable demonstration of Hoskins’ ability (and the best, in my opinion) comes at the end of the film. After Harold finds out Charlie is pulling out of his deal because of all of the bombings and because of the IRA’s involvement, he chews Charlie out for being scared (“The mafia – I’ve shit ’em!”), and resolves to go into business with the Germans. He leaves the hotel where Charlie is at, and signals for a car, only to find out too late it has Brosnan and another IRA member inside (Victoria is trapped inside another car). Hoskins is able to go from disbelief to anger to acceptance, all without saying a word, and it’s a masterful example of good acting. Mirren is also terrific in making the role of Victoria more than just a gangster’s moll. She brings class to Harold, but she also brings intelligence (she’s able to guess Jeff is more involved with the story than he admits), and yet also toughness (she stands up to Harold when he berates her for spilling the beans to Charlie about the bombs) mixed with vulnerability (in that same scene, she also cries in fear, which was Mirren’s suggestion). Constantine, who replaced Anthony Franciosa as shooting started (Franciosa claimed he didn’t like the fact the script had changed so much before the film started shooting), was best known for playing the detective Lemmy Caution in a series of French films, may have been a bit flat in delivering his dialogue, but he has the right face for Charlie, and brings a nice presence as well. While Hoskins, Mirren, and of course Brosnan all went on to bigger things, Mackenzie and Keeffe never topped The Long Good Friday, but it’s a tough act to follow.
In 1974, Derek Creighton “Bertie” Smalls, an armed robber in Britain who had been caught by the police earlier, gave testimony in court where he informed on 32 of his associates in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Though British police, as with police throughout the world, relied on informers (in Britain, known as “grasses”), Smalls was the most notorious one, and became known as a “supergrass”. Before he was caught, Smalls hid out in Torremolinos in Spain; after an extradition treaty between Spain and the United Kingdom expired in 1978, so many British criminals fled to the Costa del Sol countryside that it was nicknamed Costa del Crime. Those two facts became an inspiration for The Hit, but writer Peter Prince and director Stephen Frears (who had worked together four times before on British TV) used the occasion to make not just a gangster film, but a fish-out-of-water film and an existential road film.
The Smalls character here is Willie Parker (Terrence Stamp), a driver in a series of robberies who, early in the film informs on the others, among them Corrigan (Lennie Peters, the blind singer who was part of the pop group Peters & Lee). While Willie is unnerved when the other robbers start singing Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” after his testimony (which happened in real life to Smalls), he is able to go to Spain safely, and nothing happens to him, at least until 10 years later. Now living comfortably in Spain, he comes from from a shopping trip only to find four men waiting for him, and while he puts up a fight (and his bodyguard is run over), eventually, he sees the futility of fighting and gives himself up. The four men take him to Braddock (John Hurt) and his partner Myron (Tim Roth), who, once they verify who he is (and after they’ve killed the four by putting a bomb in a suitcase that they thought contained their payoff for the job), set out to take Willie to Paris, where Corrigan and the others are presumably waiting for him. However, things don’t quite go as planned. For starters, instead of being anxious and trying to escape, Willie seems cheerfully resigned to his fate, and even tries to draw the others out by talking to them. For another, there’s a detective (Fernando Rey, known for The French Connection and his films with Luis Bunuel) hot on their trail. Finally, when the three of them go to an apartment in Madrid that’s both a way station and a place to get a new car, they find Harry (Bill Hunter, the late Australian character actor) living there, along with Maggie (Laura del Sol, who had played the title role in Carlos Saura’s version of Carmen a couple of years earlier; Paco del Lucia, the flamenco guitarist who composed and played most of the music for the film, also wrote the score for Saura’s film), his ex-prostitute girlfriend, and Braddock takes Maggie hostage, which makes the situation even more unstable.
The opening credits actually shows Braddock in a scene from later in the film, as Frears wanted to emphasize the movie is as much Braddock’s story as Willie’s. For while Willie can see his fate coming and seems resigned to it, Braddock, who knows he’s on his way down, doesn’t like it at all. He wears sunglasses as a way of blocking off the world, but also to keep anyone from prying inside his skull and finding out how frightened he really is. Where Willie is cheerful and talkative, Braddock only talks when necessary, and is reluctant to give out any information about himself (when Myron reveals his name, Braddock glares at him). Also, while Willie has become well-read during his time in Spain (he talks about history and philosophy during the drive), Braddock’s worldview seems limited to what he has to do. It turns out Willie and Harry each know Braddock by a different name, and when the detective finally catches up to Braddock at the end after the police have mortally wounded him by shooting him, he asks Braddock who he really is, but Braddock dies instead of answering. Underneath his toughness, Braddock also shows vulnerability, as when he’s unable to bring himself to kill Maggie even though he knows it’s necessary.
Along with bringing out the parallel story between Braddock and Willie, Frears and Prince also show Braddock and Myron are out of place in Spain. Frears and cinematographer Mike Molloy (best known for shooting Shock Treatment, the sequel to the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show) constantly emphasize the landscape of Spain, whether the towns or the countryside, to show how small Braddock and Myron are compared to where they are. It also comes up in the attitudes the two of them have, where they both seem to be dismissive of what’s around them (especially when Myron goes into a bar to order beers for the others, and ends up getting into a fight with a group who’s drinking there). Only Willie is able to fit in, even though he’s still an outsider; he’s also the only one who can understand Maggie in her native language (though it turns out she knows more English than she lets on). Finally, there’s also the contrast between the businesslike manner the detective and the rest of the police conduct their investigation and the unhinged Myron and the tense Braddock conduct their business.
All the actors are good as well. This was one of Roth’s first films (Joe Strummer, of the Clash, was the original choice, but he turned it down and suggested Roth based on his work in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, made for TV), but you wouldn’t know it from how good he is. He plays Myron as an obvious psychopath who shoots first and asks questions later, yet there’s also an odd innocence to him, with the way he looks up to Braddock, and the way he ends up trying to protect Maggie, even though he knows it’s the wrong thing to do. Rey doesn’t have any dialogue till the end, but he effectively conveys authority and professionalism. Likewise, del Sol doesn’t have much dialogue, but is able to show Maggie is tougher than she looks, despite how frightened she is. And in his two scenes, Hunter is good at both the brave front tries to put up as well as the sadness when he’s resigned to his fate. But the film belongs to Stamp and Hurt. Stamp had been an iconic actor in the 60’s, thanks to his work in such films as Billy Budd, The Collector, and Modesty Blaise, but had walked away from that for the most part in the 70’s and 80’s, except for his well-known portrayal of General Zod in the first two Superman movies. Frears doesn’t trade in on Stamp’s past the way Steven Soderbergh would 15 years later in The Limey (which used footage of Stamp from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow), but there is a lot of Stamp’s earlier impishness combined with the maturity he had developed, which proves a perfect fit for Willie. And while Hurt’s role depends on him, at least outwardly, not revealing much to the other characters, he reveals all of his toughness and vulnerability to the audience, which makes us willing to follow him. And more people should follow The Hit as well; it may not be as well known as other British gangster films, but it’s among the best.
Neil Jordan has made a number of different kinds of films, from biopic (Michael Collins) to literary adaptation (the remake of The End of the Affair) to comedy (the remake of We’re No Angels) to revenge film (Angel – aka Danny Boy, his first film, and The Brave One). However, there have been two consistent strands in his career. One is how he’s tried to give many of the movies he’s made a fairy-tale like atmosphere. The other stand is of a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be something different than the man thought she was. Mona Lisa was the first example of the latter type of story, and while it’s not my favorite example – The Crying Game remains my favorite – it’s a terrific film nonetheless.
Playing someone far removed from Harold Shand – except for his working-class roots and his explosive temper – Hoskins is George, a man just out of prison for an unspecified crime. He’s estranged from his ex-wife (Pauline Melville) and his daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson), though he eventually makes up with the latter, and he goes to get a job from Mortwell (Caine), a vicious gangster whom he did time for. George eventually gets a job driving a car, but to his initial disgust, he’s meant to drive around Simone (Cathy Tyson), a call girl. It doesn’t help Simone is black (George is prejudiced), and that she looks down on him, considering him ill-mannered and lower-class (Simone’s clients tend to be upper-class). After some initial tension, however, they soon develop a wary rapport, and she tells him she’s looking for another young prostitute, named Cathy, because she wants to protect her from a pimp named Anderson (Clarke Peters, best known today from TV’s The Wire). George agrees to help find her, and as he does, he starts to fall in love with Simone.
As I mentioned at the top, this is partially a fairy tale, as Jordan wanted to bring the simplicity and romanticism of fairy tales to the movies, as well as the danger and darkness of them. Along with the real-life inspirations (a news item about a man who was arrested for assault and who claimed he was trying to protect prostitutes from their pimps, and a TV documentary about a wealthy Soho sex entrepreneur who resembled a middle-class businessman more than anything else), Jordan’s main influence here was the tale of the Frog Prince (George even tries to tell Simone the tale early on). There are fairy tale motifs throughout the movie – George brings a white rabbit when he tries to see Mortwell for the first time, George’s friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane, Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies, and also TV’s Cracker) has sculptures that could come out of a fairy tale – and also story motifs in general (George and Thomas talk about mystery novels Thomas always lends George to read, and George tells Simone’s tale as if it’s a story). Jordan also brings together both the romantic elements – George is constantly listening to the Nat King Cole version of the title song, especially when he starts falling in love with Simone – as well as the darker elements (when George is driving down the street looking for Cathy, or going around various adult clubs, Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt (best known for his work with Terry Gilliam, though he also shot Jordan’s remake of The End of the Affair) make it look like George is entering something out of Dante’s Inferno). Of course, Jordan ends up subverting the Frog Prince tale in that Simone does not fall in love with George, even though she does grow to like him; it turns out Cathy (Kate Hardie), whom George does eventually find, is Simone’s lover.
Hoskins was apparently not Jordan’s first choice for the role – Jordan wrote the part for Sean Connery, who wanted to work with Jordan but wasn’t fond of the part – but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it. George has to be rough yet naive and ultimately romantic, and Hoskins pulls all of that off brilliantly. Take the scene when he finds a scene of an old porn movie Simone appeared in (he got it when he delivered a package to an adult video store). He tries showing it to Simone, who, naturally, is pissed, and starts slapping him. George gets angry and hits her as well, but immediately apologizes, and they hug each other while crying. Hoskins goes through a lot of emotions through the course of that scene, and yet makes them all work. Tyson has the tougher role, as we have to see what draws George to her, yet she also has to remain someone mysterious and opaque, and considering this was her first film role*, she pulls it off beautifully. Coltrane brings warmth, likability, and intelligence to Thomas. Finally, while Caine is only in a few scenes, he perfectly captures someone who maintains a veneer of respectability but who is slimy through and through. Obviously, I don’t agree with Caine’s assertion that Mona Lisa is one of only three great British gangster films, but it’s definitely one of the great ones.
*-Denis O’Brien, who helped provide the money for the film through his company Handmade Films (which he co-owned with George Harrison), objected to the casting of an unknown like Tyson, preferring Grace Jones for the role, as she was just off the Bond film A View to a Kill. Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley both successfully fought O’Brien on that issue, as well as the ending of the film – O’Brien wanted to end it on the violent shootout, when Simone shoots and kills Anderson and Mortwell, and almost shoots George, while Jordan and Woolley were eventually able to get the ending they wanted, with George reminiscing with Thomas, and finally reunited with Jeannie – though O’Brien did win one battle. During the scene where George visits various strip clubs to find Cathy, we hear Genesis’ “In Too Deep”, which Jordan objected to because he wanted something more like what would have played in those clubs, but O’Brien insisted on because of how popular lead singer Phil Collins was. It does play a little too on-the-nose (“All that time I was searching, nowhere to run to”), and Jordan’s objections make sense, but I do think the song works overall.