Polo shirts and machine guns: mise-en-scene and British gangster films

Gangster movies are a genre obsessed with appearances. The key to success in cinematic representations of the criminal underworld is looking and acting powerful. It’s in the suits, the houses, the girlfriends, wives and gun molls, and in the violent ways crime bosses assert their power over enemies and underlings. In technical terms, this component of a film (the look, the sound and what it communicates about the setting and characters) is called mise-en-scene, and it’s a big part of understanding gangster movies beyond just pieces of gratuitous, violent entertainment. Some particularly good examples of how mise-en-scene can communicate deeper themes in the gangster genre come in the form of British gangster films, which deal not only with themes of power and success, but with class differences.  The 1980 movie “The Long Good Friday,” directed by John Mackenzie, and Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 movie “Layer Cake” use diverse elements of mise-en-scene like clothing, interior decoration and even characters’ accents to give audiences insight into understanding the backgrounds of the main characters, and to communicate the importance of appearance, and looking like legitimate members of the upper class.

“The Long Good Friday” is considered one of the more important British gangster movies. Its influence can be seen in pretty much every modern British gangster film, including “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and our other example, “Layer Cake.” The movie tells the story of Harold Shand, a gangster on the verge of making a big business deal with the American mafia that would “legitimize” his business. However, on the day two American representatives visit London to seal the deal, a series of violent events bring Harold’s empire crashing down around him. The rest of the film addresses Harold’s attempts to find out who’s behind the sabotage and get even with them. The movie uses accents and interior decoration to show the difference between how Harold wants to appear to others, versus the way he really is.

Perhaps the hardest mark of a person’s origin to erase is their accent. The way a person speaks is usually indicative of where they’re from. This proves to be very much the case in “The Long Good Friday.” In “Friday,” the early shots we see of Harold Shand (played in the film by Bob Hoskins) make him seem like an affluent man. He’s a jet-setter, flying around the world making business deals. He dresses nicely and gets picked up and driven around in nice cars. He even has a fancy yacht on the Thames. But as soon as he opens his mouth, his working-class accent makes it obvious that he wasn’t born into this situation. He’s had to work for it. He uses coarse language and phrases not often associated with the Oxford or Cambridge-educated businessmen he’s trying to emulate, such as this brilliant one-liner:

“No one’s heard nothing? That just ain’t natural. It’s like one of them silent, deadly farts. No clue, and then pow, you go cross-eyed.”

Harold’s efforts to cover up his accent become apparent when he’s speaking to business associates, or even to his classy girlfriend, Victoria, who has no such accent. He makes an attempt to seem well spoken. When he’s among the men who work for him, men who fear and respect him, Harold’s accent becomes much thicker, and his grammar much worse. This is because he doesn’t have to impress these men with status. Instead he has to use physical force to frighten them into obedience. Consequently, Harold’s change in accent is often accompanied with a change in demeanor. Among those he wants to impress, he uses charisma to get what he needs. Among his thugs and underworld associates, Harold’s methods are downright scary. In one scene, he rounds up a bunch of men he suspects and interrogates them by hanging them from their ankles in a meat locker. Later on, he loses his temper with his second-in-command and accidentally kills him when he smashes a bottle over the man’s head and slices his jugular vein. It’s in these moments when we see Harold for what he truly is: not a regular guy trying to charm his way into society, but a ruthless monster who has literally fought his way up from the gutter.

Interior decoration also plays a very telling role in the film. Harold and his girlfriend Victoria live in a Penthouse apartment that seems specifically designed to show off how much money they have. Unfortunately, money can’t buy taste, and the gaudiness of the furniture (even by 1980s standards) shows Harold to be a man who wants to look like he’s got a good aesthetic sense, but has had to guess for himself as to what that really looks like. The couch is covered in shiny, tacky-looking upholstery. The bed has a mirrored headboard. Harold wants to show that he can afford things that look like they belong to a rich person, even though they don’t look attractive. It’s not the attractiveness of an item, but its price that matters.

“Layer Cake” is another film that relies heavily on elements of mise-en-scene to show the true selves that the criminal characters try to hide. The plot centers on X, a drug dealer (referred to as X because he’s unnamed in the film) who considers himself a cut above the veteran gangsters he works with. His plans of retirement after one final drug deal for his boss, Jimmy Price, quickly become more complicated than he’d planned. The deal comes to involve stolen ecstasy pills, a psychotic Serbian hit man, and a colleague of Jimmy’s who decides to give X a lesson in business via the school of hard knocks.

In “Layer Cake,” the way characters’ homes look plays an even larger role than in “The Long Good Friday.” X, the main character, admits that he deals in illegal substances, but he makes the distinction early on that he’s not a gangster. He’s “a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine.” To reflect that, X’s sleek, modern apartment reinforces the idea that he’s “a deadpan yuppie of the streets,” as Owen Gleiberman writes in his review of the film for Entertainment Weekly. Everything in the place looks like it comes from Ikea. This apartment reflects the way X sees himself, and the way he wants other people to see him. We come to know, through the course of the film, that X has his personal weaknesses, but they’re private, never put on display for others to see. Likewise, his apartment reflects a strong sense of professionalism.

This is contrasted with the apartment of Gene, Jimmy’s right-hand man, who X visits about a quarter of the way into the film. In all other respects, Gene seems like a trustworthy, well-put-together man. He’s smart, and he’s good at what he does. But his apartment doesn’t reflect that. It’s tacky and poorly decorated, with curtains that don’t match the decor and framed photos of naked women on the walls. This could be interpreted either of two ways: Gene’s apartment is only shown once, which might give the feeling that it’s meant to be more of a personal sanctuary than a place where people gather, like X’s apartment, which sees a lot of the action. The other is that Gene just has a very skewed idea of what good art looks like, and he thinks the naked ladies are modern and classy-looking. In either scenario, Gene is shown to be something other than what he first appears.

Clothing is another component of the mise-en-scene in “Layer Cake.” Like the interior decoration, the clothes worn by the characters, particularly Jimmy, X’s boss, express a disconnection between the image they want to project and the way others see them. Jimmy starts out the film fairly reputably. He’s a little loud, a little rough around the edges, but he exerts a certain amount of authority. All that changes after X is introduced to Eddie Temple, a well-off longtime acquaintance of Jimmy’s. Eddie informs X that he thinks Jimmy is an annoying hanger-on, little more than a joke to Eddie and his high-society friends. He talks about how he invites Jimmy to a yearly charity golf tournament he holds, basically so Eddie’s friends can laugh at him. The scene cuts to a shot of Jimmy winning the tournament, lifting his trophy and acting like a crass idiot. To make sure the audience loses all respect they may have had for Jimmy up until now, his outfit, a bright red polo shirt and loud checkered golf pants, clashes starkly with the pastel and khaki outfits of the people around him. From that point on, Jimmy seems weaker, less respectable and more annoying.

It’s easy to write gangster movies off as violent, indulgent entertainment. Certainly, there are plenty of movies that would seem to reflect that idea, for example, the films of Guy Ritchie, which glorify a down-and-dirty criminal lifestyle. But some films, like “The Long Good Friday” and “Layer Cake” go beyond the violent exterior, to show the psychology of the characters they portray. Because the characters in these films care so much about looking rich, classy and professional, mise-en-scene is the mode of choice Matthew Vaughn and John Mackenzie use to communicate the difference between appearance and reality. Through accents, clothing and interior decoration, audiences get an image of how men like Harold Shand, X and Jimmy Price want to look, contrasted with how their actions behind closed doors, their lack of taste and inability to cover up their accents betray their background to others.