Malcolm McDowellDavid ThewlisPaul BettanyJamie Foreman
Gangster No. 1
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Paul McGuigan
Writer: Johnny Ferguson
Keywords: gangster
Country: UK, Ireland, Germany
Actor: Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, Saffron Burrows, Kenneth Cranham, Jamie Foreman, Eddie Marsan, Andrew Lincoln, Doug Allen, Razaaq Adoti, Cavan Clerkin, David Kennedy, Johnny Harris, Anton Saunders, Alex McSweeney
Format: 103 minutes
Website category: British
Review date: 23 September 2010
I've seen scarier gangster movies, but unusually this one has a point.
Normally a gangster movie is just a tale of what some bad people did. That's true even of excellent ones, like Martin Scorcese's. Of course there are exceptions, such as the Takashi Miike I watched yesterday, but today's film ends up going off into character territory that reminded me more of a stage play than a movie. I'm not going to argue that that conversation couldn't have happened in real life, but it certainly doesn't seem likely and that by that point the Malcolm McDowell character's psychology is sufficiently twisted that it's not immediately obvious what the scene's even trying to say.
That's not a bad thing, but it is noteworthy. It gives the film a much richer dramatic shape. Mind you, apparently David Thewlis's character was based on real-life gangster Mad Frankie Fraser.
The story's set in two eras. Our protagonist is played in the present by Malcolm McDowell and in the past by Paul Bettany. This is done excellently. The actors really convince you that they're the same person, which is quite a feat given that Bettany also kept reminding me of Andrew Flintoff. (For those who don't follow cricket, Flintoff's basically a much-loved blond toddler, but about two metres tall.) Especially given the time span involved, this is a complete portrayal of a monster. He's not a particularly deep or intelligent person, but that's presumably why he goes so off the rails at the end.
What makes it a little unusual compared with other modern British gangster movies is the period setting. 1968 is a bit of a change, although of course you could just watch one of the British gangster movies that are actually from around then. Unsurprisingly these men all dress as if they want to be Michael Caine, but our protagonist has a different focus. He wants to be David Thewlis. Thewlis killed a cop and got away with it. Thewlis runs his own gang, will smash a glass in your face on almost no provocation and always dresses expensively. Bettany's fixation on Thewlis is so specific and strong that it seems almost trite to point out the gay subtext, since it's clearly more complicated than that and furthermore so overt that in any case it's practically text. He worships the man's clothes and gets almost bewilderingly jealous when Thewlis takes interest in a girl. He never marries. So far, so simple...
...except that it's not. Bettany's equivalent of sex is violence. Look at the way he puts an axe on the table and then practically seduces Eddie, cooing soft words and caressing him. Look at how he tortures a man to death, which begins with him getting undressed and ends with a cigarette. After that his next two victims will be a man with a bare arse and his trousers around his ankles, then another man who's naked but for shoes and socks. Note that there's no suggestion that Bettany's doing anything but inflicting pain and death on these people. Mr Trousers for instance is experiencing electrodes. The scenes aren't showing homosexuality. It's more oblique than that, with the film using this as a visual metaphor that one presumes is reflecting something in Bettany's psyche.
The film's extreme finale isn't ambiguous in what the characters are saying, but we are left wondering about the exact nature of Bettany's fixation on Thewlis. It would be ridiculous to stop analysing at the homosexuality, assuming that's even part of it at all. We don't know for sure, despite the moment in which McDowell appears to be showing Thewlis his bottom.
It's not romanticising its criminals. They're a bit stupid and dull, actually. Thewlis looks inbred and Jamie Foreman's gang boss is almost pathetic, despite the fact that Foreman's real life father was another notorious gangster who worked with the Kray Brothers. They're also less scary-looking than the gangsters in Sexy Beast, although that doesn't mean you'd want to be alone in the room with Paul Bettany.
This isn't quite a normal gangster movie, although I wouldn't be saying that if my film had been missing its last 10-15 minutes. It's the rise and fall of a man who's broken inside and fixated on peculiar things. The gay subtext is at once developed in explicit detail and yet also possibly a side-issue, given that Bettany may or may not be sublimating all his sexual energies into violence. However that said, it's still walking and talking like a regular gangster film and its plot contains the usual elements of killing, turf wars, revenge attacks and so on. There's one particularly nasty torture scene. It's asking what makes a man want to do these things and coming up with some rather twisted answers.
"Love makes you fat."