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[whitespace] 'Gangster No. 1'
Through a Shot Glass Darkly: Embittered Gangster 55 (Malcolm McDowell) broods on his past in Paul McGuigan's 'Gangster No. 1.'

Numbers Game

'Gangster No. 1': About thugs, by thugs, for thugs

By Richard von Busack

THE ONLY WORD for Gangster No. 1 is pretentious. The surface dazzle of this crime drama is undone by the lumbering writing by Johnny Ferguson. Malcolm McDowell, an unnamed criminal referred to in the script as "Gangster 55, " narrates a story of his younger days in London, circa 1968. We learn how he rose to the top through deceit and murder. But his current happiness is menaced by the knowledge that the man he helped overthrow--his mentor, Freddie Mays (David Thewlis)--is just getting out of jail after 30 years behind bars. Gangster 55's uneasy conscience spurs his memories of the end of the 1960s.

In the long flashback, Gangster 55, a.k.a. Young Gangster, is played by Paul Bettany as a Richard Widmark-style psycho. Bettany is a disappointment because many in the audience know perfectly well what McDowell looked like in 1968, and Bettany doesn't come close. Young Gangster is an envious thug who works as a collection agent for Mays. Unlike the other animals in Mays' pack, he has ambition: he longs to soak up his boss's identity, his wardrobe and his power. (Since Young Gangster has no sex life, it's also possible he has some kind of smothered homosexual crush on Mays.) When Mays falls in love with a nightclub singer named Karen (Saffron Burrows), Young Gangster's contempt and jealousy overspill: "Love makes you fat," he raves, and soon he's implicitly conspiring with Mays' enemies.

Two aspects of the film are worthwhile. The first is the authentic period score by John Dankworth, a noted jazz/pop bandleader of the day, and the composer of the Modesty Blaise soundtrack. Dankworth had a hit in the 1960s with the title theme of Gangster No. 1: "The Good Life," and the lush tune is more evocative than the movie itself. The second is Burrows' performance of a song called "Have Mercy on Me" at the nightclub. You've heard of underacting; here's some undersinging. Burrows, never better, recaptures the breathy crooning of those zonked-out, slightly stage-frightened actresses-turned-singers of the 1960s.

Like an overdressed thug, the film coasts on its look. Much of the action takes place against the moisture-damaged, oatmeal-colored concrete walls of housing projects. One example of the stylistic approach of director Paul McGuigan (The Acid House) is that he has a character throw up in front of a car headlight so that the cascade is correctly illuminated. In my notes, I scrawled, "repellent, but not in a good way."

Love may not make you fat, but soaking up other people's styles will swell you up proper. Gangster No. 1 is a long, long tirade, leading to a hatchet murder and a finale that all but says aloud: "Why are you having these criminal fantasies? Why don't you get a life?" Despite the unusual angle on the storytelling--like Othello from Iago's point of view--Gangster No. 1 is as nerveless as it is vicious. The copious gore doesn't advance the narrative or deepen the mood--it's all just aestheticized shock. Gangster No. 1 is the exact opposite of Road to Perdition, but it goes just as wrong.

Gangster No. 1 (R; 103 min.), directed by Paul McGuigan, written by Johnny Ferguson, photographed by Peter Sova and starring Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Paul Bettany and Saffron Burrows, opens Friday at Camera 7 at the Pruneyard in Campbell.

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From the July 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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