Saturday, June 23, 2018

Movie Reviews: Gangster No. 1

Gangster No. 1
directed by Paul McGuigan
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
On one level this older film is the answer to the question of what would Alex from A Clockwork Orange be doing once he grew up. Malcolm McDowell, who gave such a frighteningly charismatic performance as Alex, is here a bit more muted, though just as nasty as the unnamed titular character, the undisputed boss of the London underworld. 

In the present day Gangster is in his late fifties and is apparently living it up. He enjoys fine dining and good food. At a boxing event with Gangster's cronies someone mentions that one Freddie Mays is finally getting out of prison after some thirty years. This news apparently upsets or confuses Gangster as he leaves the table and walks about thinking to himself. The director then takes on a flashback to the late sixties. At that time Young Gangster (Paul Bettany) is just a oddball enforcer with ambitions to rise in the gang led by Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), a dapper criminal who usually eschews personal violence though he has killed a cop and gotten away with it. 

The movie examines the events that have led up to the present day with Gangster firmly ensconced in the number one position. This film was based on a play. The director kept that theatrical feeling. There's a strong sense of deliberate performance that emanates from the actors and how the director sets up the camera and sound. It's all very stagey. This is a million miles away from work by Scorsese, Ritchie, or similar types. 

With only a few exceptions, Gangster No. 1 is not a natural feeling movie. One of those exceptions is provided by Karen (Saffon Burrows), an entertainer who falls in love with Freddie Mays and distrusts Young Gangster. Although the writing limited what we knew about Young Gangster, Bettany fills in most of what could have been a completely blank role. 

His Young Gangster is a desperately ambitious young man as well as a utter sociopath. His envy of his boss Freddie may well go beyond normal covetousness and touch something more deeply hidden and more intimate. The film leaves that up to the viewer, but given Young Gangster's almost immediate contempt for and jealousy of Karen there's something there. And speaking of Karen she's not just there for men to fight over. She sees things which she would like to show Freddie, but which Young Gangster doesn't believe exist. Young Gangster is not someone you want to cross. He's also narcissistic and fastidious, personality elements which are key to his rise in the underworld.

This isn't a film where violence is portrayed as cool, comedic or justified. With only a few exceptions the people aren't funny. They don't have cool one liners. No one will watch this film and go away thinking of crime as anything other than a horrible way to make a living and waste your life. This is a different type of crime movie. If you should have a chance to see it, check it out.
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