There is something insanely enjoyable about Paul McGuigan’s English crime film “Gangster No. 1.” Aside from the rather oddball title, the movie brings a fresh perspective to the Rise and Fall of the Gangster genre by treating its subject matter — the unnamed “Gangster” of the title, played here by two actors in two different eras — as an unapologetic psychopath. Not once in the film does McGuigan and screenwriter Johnny Ferguson try to make you feel anything but disgust at this man. And why should you be so disgusted and fear him at the same time? Because he is evil in its ultimate form. Worst, he’s evil and ambitious.
“Gangster No. 1” stars Malcolm McDowell as the older titular character, who as the film opens in 1999 is either the top kingpin of the British underground, or close to it. The film never really clears up the older Gangster’s position at this time, but his years as an underling in 1965 are more obvious. Paul Bettany, who seems to be channeling every sick and sadistic character McDowell has ever played in his long professional career, plays Young Gangster. (And there is probably no one in recorded history that has played more sick and sadistic characters in their career than McDowell, so obviously Bettany had a lot to work with.) After he’s suddenly promoted into the inner circle of current mob boss Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), Young Gangster makes it his career to replace Mays as the top dog. And if he has to leave a trail of bodies behind to get there, then that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
Paul Bettany is just superb here. The young man not only physically resembles the older McDowell, but he showcases perhaps the most evil look I’ve come across in cinema, Hannibal Lector be damn. There is a way about Bettany’s Young Gangster that makes you cringe because you know that behind those soulless eyes the maggots of envy and ambition are just burrowing away at his rotting brain. Oh yes, Young Gangster is as evil and passionless as they come, a man who seems to envy Mays for the simple reason that Mays is currently the person on top. Every look, every movement, and every word out of Young Gangster’s mouth is a death sentence for his soul — if he still has one to begin with, that is.
You shouldn’t think “Gangster No. 1” is a depressing and bleak film. It’s very well shot by Paul McGuigan, who throws in a variety of camera tricks and crosscutting to energize the violent scenes. The movie itself is shot in interesting pale colors, and the shadows fall in just the right places over Bettany’s eyes when he stares at you. Since this is a movie about the rise and fall of a gangster, there’s obviously a lot of inherent violence. (At one point a woman gets her throat slit on the sidewalk.) Besides the general retread of the Rise and Fall of the Gangster storyline and an opening scene that owes a lot (if not a downright rip off of) the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” “Gangster No. 1” is a relatively original film even if we know exactly how it’s all going to end.
Saffron Burrows (“Enigma”) plays Karen, an aspiring singer who falls for Mays, and becomes another victim of Young Gangster’s envy. Burrows has very little to do, but her brief encounters with Young Gangster are some of the film’s highlights. Young Gangster scares poor Karen so much that we can’t help but feel sorry for her, because we know, as she slowly begins to realize, that this man is pure ambition, and if she should happen to find herself between him and his goals, he will kill her without batting an eye. A quiet scene between Karen and Young Gangster where Karen declares her love for Mays and threatens Young Gangster in the process, crackles with energy and menace, and is one of many good scenes in a very good movie.
“Gangster No. 1” is as stylish as they come, and director McGuigan’s direction is properly calm in all the right places, and properly kinetic when the movie requires it. There are a couple of particularly gruesome murder scenes, but they all lend to the psychopathic nature of the lead character, and don’t seem superfluous at all. The ’60s vibe is also recreated nicely, complete with era-defined hairstyles, clothes, and cars, although I couldn’t tell you if they were accurate, since I wasn’t born yet.
There is one minor (but very annoying) problem with the movie, though. It’s this: Saffron Burrows’ Karen looks exactly the same in 1999 as she looked in 1965. I know the actress is very beautiful, but why not age her just a little? As it stands, Karen looks as if she hasn’t aged a day. Even if the filmmakers wanted to make some kind of karma-inspired point about Karen’s purity relating to her very graceful aging, then they should still have made her age enough to conform to common sense.
Problems with aging makeup aside, “Gangster No. 1” is a refreshing take on an old genre, and the lead work by actor Paul Bettany is just spectacular. If I didn’t know better, I would swear Bettany’s Young Gangster was the bastard child of McDowell’s vicious murderer in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”…
Paul McGuigan (director) / Johnny Ferguson (screenplay)
CAST: Malcolm McDowell …. Gangster 55
David Thewlis …. Freddie Mays
Paul Bettany …. Young Gangster
Saffron Burrows …. Karen