director – Paul McGuigan
script – Johnny Ferguson, based on the play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto
cinematographer – Peter Sova
stars – Paul Bettany, Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis
For an hour and a half, Gangster No.1 is a refreshing and surprising cinematic treat, barrelling along with an utterly engaging energy and self-confidence that nimbly combines contrasting strains of black humour and menacing violence. But at the crucial final stage, the wheels fall well and truly off the wagon, the speed and power of what’s gone before making the wreckage all the more spectacular and unfortunate. The film employs a flashback structure, switching between the late sixties and the present day as the unnamed gangster of the title – McDowell now, Bettany then – looks back on his blazing entrance into the London crime scene. Starting off as a lowly henchman for swanky hood Freddie “Butcher of Mayfair” Mays (Thewlis), our anti-hero rapidly rises to become an invaluable right hand to his boss – but he has even higher aspirations in mind.
Just like Gangster No.1, in fact . Though it works pretty well for most of its length as an engaging and gritty thriller, the movie doesn’t hide its grander ambitions – McGuigan’s pretentions extend much further than his refusal to reveal his main character’s name. The film can be seen as a savage deconstruction of the ‘classic’ British gangster film, just as our screens are being over-run by its pallid Natural Nylon descendents. This is solid Get Carter territory, and Richard Bridgland’s admirably restrained production design gets the late-sixties detailing just right – or just wrong, as in the pivotal scene in Thewlis’s car, where the back projection is (deliberately) as shakily unconvincing as in any British crime thriller of the era.
But while Michael Caine’s Jack Carter was frequently unpleasant, even he would have felt avoided the company of Bettany’s genuinely creepy twentysomething gangster. McGuigan strips bare Bettany’s character to peel back the gangster-movie trappings of tacky furniture and sharp suits – at one crucial stage he meticulously undresses before embarking on an orgy of violence – revealing the psychopathic horrors lurking within. In a film packed full of memorable images, the hardest to shake are those where Bettany’s face suddenly and inexplicably contorts into a gasping rictus of craziness – at one point the camera blurring it into visage of grinning horror worthy of Francis Bacon.
Gangster No.1 is thus at its most effective when making overt what most crime films are happier burying below the surface – the homoerotic elements in the relationship between Bettany and Thewlis are so unambiguous they can scarcely be called undercurrents. Bettany’s calm if goggle-eyed hero-worship soon shades into more aggressive terrain – he doesn’t just want to be like Thewlis, he wants to be him. This general development, plus the specific visual clue McGuigan uses – Bettany superimposing his own face on Thewlis’s shoulders using the reflections in a pane of glass – recall Minghella’s recent film of The Talented Mr Ripley (an echo made all the more persistent by the similarity between character names – Freddie Miles in Ripley, Freddie Mays here). There is something trite about the way the film quickly throws up a loving heterosexual relationship – between Thewlis and Saffron Burrows’ nightclub singer – to which Bettany must object. But there’s nothing trite or predictable about the real viciousness that emanates from the key scene in which Burrows informs Bettany that she has become engaged to Thewlis, and Bettany makes no attempt to hide his disgust and fury.
Such gleeful bile is rare indeed in cinema these days – but there’s only so far it can take a film. The basic problem with Gangster No.1 is that it is a character study of a deeply unpleasant individual. There’s nothing wrong with having your central character unsympathetic from beginning to end – De Niro in Raging Bull is the most obvious example – but Bettany/McDowell is never anything other than a two-dimensional louse, more of a playwright’s mechanism than an actual character. This shortcoming is unavoidably glaring in the present-day final sequence in which a frazzled McDowell is confronted by Thewlis, who has just completed a 30-year prison sentence (for one of Bettany’s gruesome murders.) The big payoff that the movie has been steadily building towards just fizzles out, leaving McDowell with a very unconvincing final rooftop scene of self-loathing and despair. It also doesn’t help that several of the present-day characters are played by the 1969 actors under ageing make-up (when has this ever looked anything but absurd on the big screen?), or that a key character pops up who the audience presumed was dead – having seen their throat being rather graphically cut.
Malcolm McDowell is a fine actor, his reputation founded on landmark works from the sixties/seventies period during which most of this film takes place. But the result of his fame is that most audiences will know exactly what McDowell looked like back then – and if you were casting anybody from this film as a younger McDowell it would surely be Thewlis rather than Bettany. Similarly, many audiences may feel that the centre of Gangster No.1 is misplaced – what’s the point of making Freddie Mays such an interesting, original and complex character, only to shunt him off to the sidelines and focus on his loony-tunes sidekick? Well, it makes for a much more violent film (though as is the norm for such films these days the vast majority of the violence takes place off camera), and perhaps a more unusual one as well. But not really that unusual – McGuigan’s intoxicating visual audacity can’t totally prevent him from occasional lazy lapses into the genre’s stalest cliches. The ‘ironic’ use of upbeat songs – during the opening and closing titles, and also during the film’s centrepiece murder scene – is especially tiresome.
This review should have already made it plain that Gangster No.1 will be too strong for many viewers – too much blood, too much hardcore swearing, too much of what Christian film reviewers categorise as ‘bad/disrespectful attitude’, though of course there’s hardly even any mention of sex at all. But for all its failings, there’s a lot to admire about McGuigan’s debut feature. Although he occasionally overdoes it, and, as I’ve said, the film unravels at the end, it always feels like a film, a real cinematic experience, a vivid way of looking at a vivid world. And, these days, such achievements are definitely not to be sniffed at.
October 23rd, 2001
(seen 22-Oct-01, UGC Boldon)
by Neil Young