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Up the Underworld Ladder


Taut, corrosive and compelling, "Gangster No. 1" has the galvanic appeal of "Little Caesar" and "Scarface" in its full-sized portrait of a brilliant but twisted and savage criminal. Never identified by name, he is played in his youth by Paul Bettany and in middle age by Malcolm McDowell. The two actors blend in depicting a man with no limits in slaking his lust for power and without equal in the London underworld in his use of cunning to achieve his ends.

In adapting Louis Mellis and David Scinto's play, writer Johnny Ferguson doesn't betray his script's theatrical origins, and director Paul McGuigan, in a remarkably forceful and confident feature debut, never loses control of his operatic material or his powerhouse actors. Gangster No. 1 is a sadistic, homicidal maniac, but as crazed as Bettany and McDowell show him to be, his madness isn't allowed to overwhelm the scale of what is at heart an intimate drama. The film opens in 1999 in a posh London ballroom where people dine in formal dress as a boxing match takes place in a ring in the center of the room, with the match emerging as a metaphor for the brutal world we're about to enter. Gangster No. 1 (McDowell) is at the head of a large table of similarly middle-aged men. He's at the pinnacle of his power, and his men, waxing mellow, reminisce about the old days and old cohorts. "Speaking of oldies but goodies," says one thug expansively, "Freddie Mays is getting out next month."

For perhaps the first time in his life, Gangster No. 1 is struck with fear and commences to tell us his story. We flash back to swinging London, 1968, and Gangster No. 1 is a thin, reddish-blond kid (Bettany) with an unsettling blue-eyed gaze. He has sufficiently impressed one of Freddie Mays' henchmen to win an audience with Mays, the Butcher of Mayfair. Ensconced in a smashing Vegas-like, black-and-gold high-rise apartment and sharing the late John Gotti's sartorial tastes, Freddie is a smart young man who's risen to the top fast. He is everything that Gangster No. 1 wants to be. Mays is impressed with Gangster No. 1 and makes him his right-hand man.

For a brief, shining moment in Gangster No. 1's life, he and Freddie are a peerless criminal duo--until nightclub singer Karen (Saffron Burrows) walks in and steals Freddie's heart, just when he needs to concentrate on a gangland rivalry. Gangster No. 1, who is openly contemptuous of women and who may well be in love with Freddie himself but would never, never admit it to himself, diabolically seizes the moment, fueled by jealous rage. When it comes to ruthlessness, Freddie is a Sunday-school kid in comparison to Gangster No. 1.

Now three decades later, Gangster No. 1 thinks he must confront Freddie again, not realizing it might involve confronting himself. It takes actors of the caliber of McDowell and David Thewlis as Freddie to pull off a quite daring and unpredictable encounter; McDowell scales the heights in his best demented form while Thewlis keeps him anchored.

If the McDowell of "A Clockwork Orange" hovers over the film, so does the spirit of Greek tragedy. The filmmakers, aware they're dealing with archetypes, accordingly subsume them in sterling, fleshed-out portrayals and a superbly evoked sense of time and place, of the present and the '60s.

Cinematographer Peter Sova's riveting images; Richard Bridgland's flawless, wide-ranging production design; Jany Temine's costumes; Jenny Shircore's hair and makeup designs; and John Dankworth's mood-setting score, interspersed with vintage pop tunes chosen for ironic effect, blend to perfection. Nothing is heavy-handed, and for all the volatility of this timeless crime saga and the inevitable violence, McGuigan allows much of the savagery to play out in our imagination. "Gangster No. 1" is solid, satisfying fare for adults.

MPAA rating: R, for strong, brutal violence, pervasive language, brief drug use, and nudity. Times guidelines: unsuitable for children.

'Gangster No. 1'

Malcolm McDowell ... Gangster No. 1

David Thewlis ... Freddie Mays

Paul Bettany ... Young Gangster

Saffron Burrows ... Karen

An IFC Films and FilmFour release of a Pagoda Film production in association with Road Movies Filmproduktion with the participation of the British Screen and BSkyB and Filmboard Berlin Brandenburg. Director Paul McGuigan. Producers Norma Heyman & Jonathan Cavendish. Executive producer Peter Bowles. Screenplay Johnny Ferguson; based on the play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto. Cinematographer Peter Sova. Editor Andrew Hulme. Music John Dankworth. Costumes Jany Temine. Hair and makeup designer Jenny Shircore. Production designer Richard Bridgland. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

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