Gangster Number 1

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

When a film
comes up aces in pretty much every department–acting, writing, photography,
sound, production design, editing, costumes–and still seems average, you
can’t shake the feeling that the filmmakers and actors have, in some horribly
convoluted way, wasted their efforts. That feeling is conjured by Gangster
Number 1
, a stylish, nasty, curiously opaque crime picture from first-time
fiction filmmaker Paul McGuigan, who made his bones in documentaries.

Number 1
follows in the footprints of Taxi Driver, Natural Born
, Straw Dogs, Goodfellas and other meditations on violence
and male rage–films that immerse you in anxiety and violence while doing
everything possible to distance you from the main character. The most perfect
example of this subgenre is Stanley Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork
, which was so self-consciously art-directed and so heavily narrated
(in novelist Anthony Burgess’ made-up futurist patois) that it practically
dared you to care about its thug hero. Gangster Number 1, which flashes
back from the present day to 1968, uses some of the same distancing devices,
and in much the same way. It has Clockwork Orange-style narration, thick
with slang, some real-world and some invented. It has images of a homicidal
hero staring directly into the lens, and occasionally addressing the audience
directly. And in a casting coup so perfect it verges on obviousness, the fiftysomething
version of the main character is played by Malcolm McDowell, the Humble Narrator
of Orange.

The film’s
title comes from the gangster’s name for himself, bestowed as a young man.
In the flashbacks, when the character is played by thirtysomething Paul Bettany,
he’s known as Young Gangster; in the present-day scenes, McDowell steps
into the role and the character is known as Gangster 55 (quite a fall from prominence,
lad). If this vicious gangland climber has a real name, we never learn it, nor
do we learn anything about his background or his beliefs (or lack thereof).
He’s a stone killer, pure and simple; he had a vision of ruling his boss’
empire, then he set about killing every man who stood between him and the throne.
He’s a street hood version of Macbeth, but he’s granted permission
to kill not by a scheming wife, but by his own sick, extremely talkative subconscious.
He’s EveryGangster–a comic book projection (or self-projection), living
out blood-fantasy scenarios that you’ve already seen in other gangster
movies–the business satire, classy duds and convoluted plotting of the
Godfather pictures; the Scorsese Goodfellas/Casino tone
of savage violence-plus-black comedy.

In a sense,
the title could be read as a faintly self-deprecating admission of just how
common this material is. Quite a few upcoming filmmakers chose the crime thriller
as their debut genre, perhaps because, along with film noir (a related genre),
it gives cast and crew a chance to do Ringling Bros. backflips over a safety
net of proven formula. The script, by Johnny Ferguson, was adapted from a London
stage play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and despite the dark, sleek, mod-noir
production design (by up-and-comer Richard Bridgeland) and makeup and hair (by
veteran Jenny Shircore), it still feels a wee bit like a flamboyantly arty stage
play–an extended monologue with illustrations.

Except for
a few hints of working-class resentment when the gangsters discuss money, the
film is curiously abstract; it doesn’t give you a sense of what kind of
young people were drawn to this lifestyle in the Flower Power 60s. The story
lacks specifics of both plot and culture; it seems to be occurring in the same
alternate universe as the Mel Gibson remake of Payback, where grown men
shoot each other left and right on big city streets and the cops always arrive
too late to arrest anybody.

In the flashbacks
(which occupy the bulk of the picture’s running time), Gangster Number
holds your attention. It has smash-and-grab editing, some fine, sharp-edged
dialogue and a pleasingly right-on look. The performances are sterling right
down the line, from Bettany and McDowell, who share the same ice-dagger stare
and switchblade posture, to David Thewlis, who plays the hero’s decadently
cool, much-plotted-against employer, Freddie Mays, and Jamie Foreman as rival
ganglord Lennie Taylor, a heavily Brylcreemed middle-aged cowboy (he has some
of Joe Pesci’s shlumpy fireplug defensiveness).

Yet the result
of all this talent is a movie that’s original in all the ways that don’t
matter, and unoriginal in all the ways that do. Coppola gave crime moviemakers
a new model 30 years ago–burnished, operatic, savage; Scorsese provided
a new model 12 years ago in Goodfellas by applying a satirist’s
eye to a documentarian’s details. The Sopranos builds on (and in
some ways improves upon) Goodfellas by granting nearly equal dramatic
importance to its female characters; it insists its male characters dwell in
a gory, macho fantasyland partly because they can’t control, escape or
even understand the opposite sex.

Number 1
doesn’t have a single idea anywhere near as interesting–just
a succession of super-nasty setpieces that seem rather obviously designed to
take their place in the Brutality Hall of Fame, alongside the shower sequence
in Psycho, the cop-torture sequence in Reservoir Dogs and the
rape sequence in A Clockwork Orange, which begins with McDowell’s
droog antihero savagely thrashing a homeowner while crooning "Singing in
the Rain." (Gangster pays homage to the latter in a murder sequence
that kicks off with the hero cranking the volume on the stereo; it’s almost
as if he’s seen so many movies that he can’t kill without a soundtrack.)
The camera represents the point of view of the man being murdered, and the sequence
seems to go on for days. Here, as elsewhere, violence is grotesque and cleverly
staged, but it ultimately seems cynical and unfeeling–like a calculated
attempt to impress.

time would have been better spent untangling the central love triangle between
Young Gangster, his boss Freddie and Freddie’s girlfriend, a sultry singer
named Karen (Saffron Burrows, appealing despite having no real character to
play). The film suggests our hero is fuming over the fact that a girl stole
his boss away, instead of the other way around; we’ve seen that before,
but it’s still funny. Yet this promising trope is treated glancingly, either
because the filmmakers weren’t quite sure how far to go with it, or because
they were too busy fussing over style issues and giving the actors notes on
how to seem dangerous without overdoing it. (McDowell didn’t get the memo;
he cackles, struts and glowers like a teenager pretending to be Tony Montana.
The man is an icon of sorts, and deservedly so, but here he overdoes the volcanic
"intensity." As a result, his present-day scenes don’t quite
match up with Bettany’s icefishing cool–a major problem when you’ve
got two actors playing the same guy opposite a supporting cast that’s aged
with special makeup.) Like so many gangster and crime pictures made since Goodfellas,
Gangster Number 1 is a very professional effort that amounts to less
than the sum of parts. It’s a calling card with blood on it.