The mod mobster movie Gangster No. 1 not only depicts criminal characters, it emulates them. Nearly all of the film's ideas are either stolen or counterfeits from other sources, while its original notions are its weakest, like the generic title Gangster No. 1. Presented by the Peachtree Film Society, Gangster No. 1 has enough flash and violence to make a strong impression but lacks the smarts to make a very positive one.
Malcolm McDowell plays an unnamed British ganglord identified -- inexplicably -- in the closing credits as "Gangster 55." We first see him suckling at a huge cigar, wearing a tuxedo at an underground prizefight, and surrounded by the pink faces and bad teeth of his aging cronies. When he hears that a crook named Freddie Mays is soon to be released from prison, he flashes back 30 years to the dawn of his career.
McDowell's role as a young man is played by Paul Bettany of A Knight's Tale and A Beautiful Mind, and it's an inspired choice of casting. Not only does Bettany make a good physical match to McDowell, he has a similar lean look as the media idols of Swinging London of the '60s. Bettany's raw enforcer gets elevated by Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), a stylish young hoodlum and nightclub owner.
Thewlis' smug smile makes an almost perfect "V," and it's easy to see how his class and confidence would impress the fledgling gangster, who gazes enviously at Freddie's ruby cufflinks and gray two-piece mohair suit. When they meet a beautiful bar-girl and would-be singer named Karen (Saffron Burrows), Freddie comes on smooth while the gangster is all hostility. Freddie and Karen's blooming relationship, and her contempt for the gangster, fuel the young thug's schemes to usurp Freddie's place, and he schemes like one of Shakespeare's power-grasping villains.
Director Paul McGuigan gives the film plenty of visual panache. He's especially enamored of split-screens and moving his goons through and around London's ugliest architecture. But there's not much depth behind his imagery, as when satanic flames symbolically consume Bettany and, later, McDowell. Or the director shows the young gangster's desires by superimposing his face over Thewlis in a window's reflection. The montage that brings the film to the present has McDowell counting off the years, while pop signifiers like Sid Vicious and Margaret Thatcher are intercut with his criminal success.
The film's most chilling and effective sequence tracks the young gangster before and during a grisly murder. With the film stock tinted green, the camera follows Bettany's determined face while McDowell's voice offers a mental checklist: "Gun. Machete. Chisel." Before going to work on his victim, Bettany removes his clothes to keep them from getting bloody, taking special care folding his slacks to keep the crease, and then unrolls his tool belt. Next we see him from the victim's point of view, babbling and increasingly covered in blood, proving to be not just a professional hit man, but a raving psychopath.
Johnny Ferguson's script can't make a move without bumping into an earlier, better mob movie. A tracking shot that introduces the gangster's old mates plays like an English Goodfellas: "There was Mad John, he was really mad; Billy Not-So-Smart; Roland, always with two birds ..." Bettany's "look at me" intimidation tactic is all of a piece with Travolta's similar shtick in Get Shorty, while McDowell's ranting speech at the end echoes Cagney's "Top o' the world, Ma!" in White Heat.
As "your humble narrator" in A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell had a detachment that was both engaging and monstrous, but here his voice is simply an unthinking Cockney snarl spewing profanity. Throughout the film, the actor conveys little but brutality and trace amounts of the guilt that catch up to the gangster.
Ben Kingsley and Terence Stamp made stellar comebacks with comparable, scene-stealing roles in Sexy Beast and The Limey. McDowell and McGuigan strive for a similar payoff, but they're simply not as sure-footed as thieves.