Gangster No. 1 (2000)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced) and 1.33:1 (Pan-and-Scan)
Dolby Digital 5.1
MGM Home Entertainment, $22.50

Meticulously mounted by a clearly committed cast and crew, Gangster No. 1 qualifies as a minor masterpiece within its well-worn genre. The film’s plot may seem familiar, but it succeeds as a compelling character study by placing viewers right inside the mind of a psychopathic hoodlum. In his own summation of the narrative (delivered during this DVD’s brief behind-the-scenes featurette), actor David Thewlis cuts to the chase: "It’s about one man’s descent into madness through his lust for power. Freddie [Mays], my character, holds the power that Gangster desires. But that’s Gangster’s downfall. It’s a curious thing that he sees [in Freddie] – it’s more about style, it’s very concentrated on [Freddie’s] dress sense and his rings and his watch and cufflinks."

Like Mays, Gangster No. 1 has style to spare, and the picture’s symbolic subtleties and visual panache merit and reward repeated viewings. The story begins in 1999, but is told mainly in flashbacks to 1968. Our humble narrator is the titular, unnamed criminal (Malcolm McDowell, in a wry homage to his role in A Clockwork Orange) who has risen to a position of unquestioned supremacy in the London rackets; when a crony casually mentions that Mays is finally being sprung from prison after decades behind bars, Gangster recalls how he betrayed and usurped his onetime boss, whom he alternately idolized and reviled.

To the young and hungry Gangster (played with magnetic malevolence by Paul Bettany during the ’60s scenes), Mays is the "ace face" among London’s crime lords – the toff of all toffs, the smoothest and most elegantly attired criminal in town. Summoned for a sit-down with this sartorially faultless sociopath, Gangster is suitably impressed; in one of the film’s many Cockney-inflected voiceovers (delivered by McDowell with blackhearted brio), he gushes like a schoolgirl: "In ’e came – there ’e was, in those ’and-made Italian leather shoes. Silk socks. The suit? Do me a favor. The man was class, a class act. Style. Im-fucking-peccable. What a man. I mean a real man." Unfortunately for both Freddie and Gangster, the latter’s unhealthy fixation leads to an ultra-bloody coup that forces both men to search their souls for salvation. Suffice to say that one of them comes up empty.

If presented in stereotypical fashion, this familiar "dog eat dog" scenario could have left moviegoers glancing longingly at their own watches. But the core group behind the film – director Paul McGuigan, cinematographer Peter Sova, ASC, screenwriter Johnny Ferguson, production designer Richard Bridgland, costume designer Jany Temime, editor Andrew Hulmer and music supervisor John Dankworth – went to extraordinary lengths to create an authentic period ambience. Everything in the film – the clothes, the cars, the dialogue, the locations, sets and music – looks and feels so right that viewers could be forgiven if they thought the film had actually been made during the Sixties. In fact, with its mixture of gritty realism and cinematic panache, Gangster No. 1 plays like the natural heir to two other Cockney crime classics set in London’s criminal underworld: the hardboiled Get Carter and the psychedelic Performance, both of which were released in 1970.

During his DVD commentary, however, McGuigan acknowledges a more unexpected influence: The Filth and the Fury, a 2000 documentary about punk rock’s seminal act, The Sex Pistols. McGuigan’s debt is most evident in the film’s flashy editing, but he was also inspired to try other tricks that pay dividends in several key sequences – most spectacularly during a grim but brilliantly executed setpiece in which the young Gangster methodically dismembers a rival mob boss. The entire ordeal is shot from the point of view of the incapacitated victim, whose perspective provides the audience with a good, close look into the eyes of a murderous madman.

The director also offers a clever explanation for his decision to cast two different actors, who don’t really resemble each other, as the title character. Noting that the film’s flashbacks are told from the older Gangster’s perspective, McGuigan points out that "when you’re looking back on yourself, you never represent yourself the way you truly were; i.e., you represent yourself as being more handsome and ... funnier."

Everyone involved with the film deserves kudos, but special mention must be made of Sova’s exceptional cinematography. By blending carefully balanced compositions with naturalistic handheld work, Sova manages to immerse the audience in a specific era and mindset. Mirrors, reflections and lens flares are all used to great effect, along with split screens and fractured, kaleidoscopic views of ultraviolent mayhem. Happily, MGM’s transfer preserves the full range of Sova’s carefully nuanced work. (For more information, see AC’s coverage in Production Slate, June ‘02).

Aside from McGuigan’s commentary and the behind-the-scenes featurette (which offers insights from the director, Thewlis and McDowell), the only extras are the trailer, a TV spot and one deleted scene. Nevertheless, this title is well worth owning, especially for fans of the gangster genre.

– Stephen Pizzello

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.