Forgotten talent who made Britain's best gangster film
John Mackenzie, the film director who died on June 8 aged 83, was best known for The Long Good Friday (1980, starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren), a blood-soaked tale of a gangland chief's attempts to develop London's Docklands while he is waging war with the IRA.
Originally conceived by playwright Barrie Keeffe, the film brilliantly evoked the glitzy, sleazy underbelly of London's Docklands on the cusp of the 1980s boom and launched its star Hoskins (who played the gangster Harry Shand) on a successful film career. It was Mackenzie who talked the actor through the famous final shot in which the camera registers the shifts of expression on Shand's face as it slowly dawns on him who is really driving the limousine he has gotten into.
Although The Long Good Friday is widely considered the best British gangster film ever made, it very nearly fell at the first hurdle. Shot in 1979, it was held back for nearly two years because the film's financiers, led by Lew Grade, thought it unpatriotic and were worried that the IRA would bomb the cinemas.
With Mackenzie away on holiday, the film was cut down by almost half an hour with the idea that it was to be sold to American television. They even went as far as redubbing Hoskins's voice to make it more acceptable to US audiences. Outraged, Hoskins decided to sue.
The film was eventually salvaged by George Harrison's company, Handmade Films, which bought the rights for the £900,000 it had cost to make.
Despite its success with cinema audiences, Mackenzie only received a one-off payment of £15,000 for his work.
John Mackenzie was born in Edinburgh on May 22, 1928, and educated at Holy Cross Academy. After reading History at Edinburgh University, he studied drama and joined Edinburgh's Gateway Theatre Company. He also worked as a teacher before moving to London in 1960.
He served his apprenticeship at the BBC, as assistant to Ken Loach on such plays as Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966). However, he found Loach too "pamphleteering" and their ways soon parted. "I didn't want to humiliate Harold Wilson," he recalled. "I wanted to tell gripping stories about characters in their social contexts."
Mackenzie went on to direct television plays and episodes of The Jazz Age and ITV's Saturday Night Theatre. His first film was the television drama There Is Also Tomorrow (1969), and he also directed (and co-wrote) Peter MacDougall's trilogy of gritty Glasgow television dramas, including Just Another Saturday (1975), which won the Prix Italia for Best Drama and inspired a young Robert Carlyle to embark on an acting career.
Mackenzie still largely worked for television, aside from the independent production Made (1972) until, in 1979, he directed A Sense of Freedom, based on the autobiography of the Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle, which won him a Bafta nomination.
After The Long Good Friday, Mackenzie decamped to Hollywood where he made The Honorary Consul (1982, with Michael Caine and Richard Gere), The Innocent (1985, with Liam Neeson) and The Fourth Protocol (1987, with Michael Caine), but success proved elusive.
He won critical acclaim for Ruby (1992), a biopic of Jack Ruby, the Texan nightclub owner who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald, but the film was less of a box-office hit than it might have been because its distributors refused to release it until after Oliver Stone's JFK (1991).
Mackenzie returned to Britain in 1993, later directing such films as Deadly Voyage (1996) and When the Sky Falls (2000), a taut and fluently-shot thriller based on the story of Veronica Guerin, the crime correspondent of the Sunday Independent who was assassinated in 1996.
In 1998, he made the acclaimed BBC drugs drama Looking After JoJo, starring Robert Carlyle.
Amiable, and with an air of mild distraction, Mackenzie was sometimes described as the "forgotten man of Scottish film", but he did not seem to mind.
"Perhaps it's because I have a very boring personality," he reflected. "I've always been slightly anonymous."
John Mackenzie married Wendy Marshall in 1956. She predeceased him and he is survived by their three daughters.