I spoke with Malcolm McDowell in October 2001 during the Mill Valley Film festival where GANGSTER NO 1 was screening. As charming in person as on film, he spoke eloquently about playing madmen, working with Kubrick and Anderson, and the hazards of taking career advice from writers.
GANGSTER NO 1 is a slick and stylish tale of love and revenge set in the 60s Londons 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 McDowells Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with its unhinged intensity. Plus we have McDowells ironic voiceover to comment and foreshadow the hijinks. We start as hes being summoned from a life of petty crime to a place in Freddys organization and the start of his climb to the top of the underworld ladder.