Gangster No. 1 (2000)

D: Paul McGuigan
S: Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Malcolm McDowell

Forceful British gangster film adapted from a stageplay by Louis Mellis and David Scinto by Irish writer Johnny Ferguson but otherwise part of a continuum of very British takes on the genre including Get Carter and The Long Good Friday. Distinct from the cartoonish, schoolboy-level hi-jinks in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (which has now spawned a TV series which the producers themselves liken to Scooby-Doo), Paul McGuigan's film explores and explodes the conventions of the vicious-but-likable gangster which reached its moral nadir with Guy Ritchie's vacuous, adolescent fantasy. The unnamed gangster at the centre of this film (played as a young man by Paul Bettany and by Malcolm McDowell in his later years) is an irredeemable psychopath; a vain and envious shell of a man devoted only to an image of himself as a hard man which by the end of the film leaves him without a shred of humanity. He is quite literally a vessel of evil, an amalgam of clichés obsessed with the superficial trappings of power for whom murder is the only moment of purity and emotional release (not dissimilar from the protagonist of American Psycho). This allows McGuigan and Ferguson to get away with the fact that the film itself never generates an emotional response or successfully presents its characters as human beings. It is very much a cerebral meditation on wilful evil and the (im)morality of violence which concludes logically with a finale where the character realises he has everything he has always wanted but still has nothing. Like Lucifer, he rules in hell, but is equally damned.

The story follows the rise and rise of the title character, an unnamed young thug who is hired by high-profile gangster David Thewlis as a soldier and finds himself increasingly obsessed with him. This becomes an almost erotic absorption with the aura of power and success which Thewlis radiates, and gangster sets his sights on not only having all that he has but being as cool and irresistible as well. When Thewlis falls in love with dancer Saffron Burrows, gangster sees a potential weakness (as he does in all displays of emotion) and is consumed with jealousy and hatred, but manipulates the relationship to his own ends. He tortures and murders his way into a position of prominence, eventually replacing Thewlis as head of the gang when the latter is sent to prison. The film begins with the older version of the character learning that Thewlis is out at last, and reflecting on the events which led to his incarceration.

Gangster No. 1 not as accomplished a film as either Get Carter or The Long Good Friday. It never quite escapes a certain staginess (despite Ferguson's insistence that he only read the play once before writing the script), not just in terms of setting (many important scenes take place in a high rise apartment which itself comes to symbolise the stagnation of its central character), but in terms of the schematic manner in which the final scenes literally close out the drama with a confrontation between the aged McDowell and Thewlis. The switch of actors itself is somewhat disconcerting, particularly when everyone else who has survived the film from the 1960s scenes plays the older version of their characters themselves. The film is also distant and methodical, and though this style represents the moral emptiness of its central character, this cannot always be excused for it. The audience is never fully integrated with or implicated in the violence at its core, apart from in one talking-point scene where the character brutally murders a rival gangster, which is shot from the victim's point of view (the camera even mimics his slipping in and out of consciousness by fading in and out of the action periodically). It most definitely will not appeal to fans of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and more's the pity, because it proves how unauthentic and utterly devoid of moral value that film was.

Despite its shortcomings, Gangster No. 1 offers a compelling portrait of moral emptiness. Its gangster is avowedly less than human, literally nothing more than a set of icons, but the film is not shy about exploring the depths of his degradation. From his virtually homoerotic (or arguably oneric) fascination with his boss (embodied in his fetishisation of clothes and jewellery, but also in scenes where he quite literally gazes upon Thewlis, and one where he envisions his own reflection on the latter's body) to his eventual and long-delayed realisation of his own lack of substance when confronted with the changed and older Thewlis, gangster is an intriguing concoction, if not an original one (we've seen elements of this as far back as the classics Public Enemy, Scarface, and Little Caesar). Bettany is very convincing in the part, photographed cleverly to emphasise his almost waif-like body and his piercing eyes. McDowell is also good as the older character, though, as noted and despite a constant voice-over by McDowell, the switch between them is not very smooth. Support from Thewlis and others is good, though Burrows is given a more or less generically standard female role which limits her impact. There are some stylistic flourishes along the way, but on the whole the film is less elaborate and playful than many of the more recent examples of the genre have been (which is just as well, though it will hurt its box-office). It is not without flaws, but equally not without interest. It is not likely to be a commercial success, but is worth seeing if you think you can take a film about such an authentically inhuman gangster in the wake the lifestyle advertisement that was Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.