GANGSTER NO 1 is a slick and stylish tale of love and revenge set in the 60s London’s gangland scene. In the milieu that brought forth the real-life Kray brothers, known for their ultra-violence, screenwriter Johnny Ferguson brings us Freddy Mayes and his prime lackey, the eponymous gangster Number 1 who is never otherwise named.
The film opens in the present, with the Number 1, here played by Malcolm McDowell at his gleefully wicked best, puffing on a cigar at a posh club, laughing and swapping stories while sipping champagne and paying scant attention to the boxing match at which he has ringside seats. Someone mentions that Freddy Mayes is getting out after 30 years, and McDowell faces hardens and the flashback to 1968 begins. Paul Bettany slips into the role now and while he bears only the scantest of resemblances to McDowell, there is about him the face of an angel masking a demon seed beneath that effectively channels McDowell’s Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with it’s unhinged intensity. Plus we have McDowell’s ironic voiceover to comment and foreshadow the hijinks. We start as he’s being summoned from a life of petty crime to a place in Freddy’s organization and the start of his climb to the top of the underworld ladder.
Ferguson adds many hidden depths to the relationship between these two. Number 1’s attraction to Freddy is immediate, focusing on the handmade shoes, the mohair suit and the commanding presence. In the course of the film, it become obvious that Number 1 doesn’t just envy or admire Freddy, he is consumed to obsession by him. In a telling scene, we see Number 1 watching Freddy through a pane of glass and self-consciously lining his reflection in that glass with Freddy. We understand that the Gangster’s goal isn’t to become like Freddy with all his money and power, he wants to become Freddy himself. It’s a powerful undercurrent of psychosexual narcissism of which Freddy, played by a smoothly laconic David Thewlis, seems unaware, so accustomed is he to be the object of adoration and/or fear that other people as individuals no longer registers. For him, giving Number 1 a tie-pin is a mark of favor done on the spur of the moment without a second thought. For the Number 1, it’s like an engagement. And considering that we never get a whiff of interest in the opposite sex from Number 1, conclusions can be drawn with a certain safety. Especially considering that this demi-monde of crime and violence has a strangely impersonal quality. People are sent to the hospital and then have a drink with the thug who put them there. It was nothing personal, just business. Number 1 adds an even more dangerous edge to his psychosis by taking everything very personally. When Freddy becomes infatuated with a would-be singer played with grit by Saffron Burrows, the inevitable rift ensues with all its bloody fallout.
Director Paul McGuigan captures the kinetic quality of the 60s with jump-action pacing, groovy camera angles and the occasional split screen treatment that never crosses the line into camp. His depiction of the brutality is effective in what it >doesn’t< show. We hear plenty, sickening thuds and such, and we see plenty of blood splattered everywhere, but rarely do we see the acts themselves, so that when we do, they make a devastating impression. His most intriguing sequence is a victim’s eye view of one of Gangster’s most vicious executions, with the camera, like the victim fading to black during the ordeal.
GANGSTER NO. 1 ends with us back in the present with McDowell for a final confrontation between Number 1 and Freddy, one that devolves into strident histrionics that give McDowell a chance to strut his psychotic stuff, but offers few other rewards and leaves a bad aftertaste. Still, it’s an interesting ride until then.
Listen to the interview with Malcolm McDowell.