Friday, 18 January 2013

Scum and The Long Good Friday: Why 1979 was a terrific year for film (part 1)

Here's the first post in a two-part look at a terrific year of film...

Arguments about the relative merits of individual cinematic years can drag on longer than The Hobbit. Yet there’s a solid case for 1979 being one of the most exciting years of English-language cinema in the 20th century.

There were auspicious acting triumphs from Ray Winstone (Scum) and Mel Gibson (Mad Max), while Peter Sellers starred in the final film to be released during his lifetime (Being There). There was hallucinatory chaos in the jungle (Apocalypse Now) and at least two pictures that saw the world’s greatest cities on show (The Long Good Friday and Manhattan). Gang culture was captured with varying levels of realism (The Warriors and Quadrophenia), while one religious satire (Monty Python’s Life of Brian) provoked hilarity and controversy in equal measure.

Repeated viewings of Scum have not diminished its power. Bleak and uncompromising, the film is not an easy watch, but Alan Clarke’s unflinching borstal story survived attempts to ban it. From start to finish, the depiction of a youth prison teeming with anger and violence is as primal and savage as any David Attenborough nature documentary. Winstone’s terrifying turn as Carlin in particular has since become a part of pop culture, with the character’s “I’m the daddy,” catchphrase being co-opted by TV adverts. Despite its explicit and relentless brutality, the film has sensitivity and wit – often expressed through the actions of considered, intellectual convict Archer (Mick Ford) – even if viewers have to sit through scenes of assault, rape and suicide to get there.

If any film of 1979 illustrated how tough like could be for the have-nots, it was this one. The Long Good Friday is another memorable early depiction of Thatcherite Britain. A criminal is again the chief protagonist, but Harold Shand is far from the disenfranchised youth of Scum. In his finest performance, Bob Hoskins plays successful East End mobster Shand with the no-nonsense capitalist bravado that would come to epitomise the 80s. His stirring, patriotic speech to a pair of American mobsters towards the film’s finale is so London it should have its own Oyster card. Watching with hindsight, the film is also a fascinating historical document. The plot centres on Shand’s attempts to redevelop then-derelict Docklands. Many scenes show poignant images of empty docks and disused cranes, the consequence of nearly 200 years of trade in the area finally drying up. Three decades and billions of pounds later, bankers have replaced dockers and the Isle of Dogs is again a huge part of London’s economy.

Check back here soon for Part 2...