Cinema Signal:

Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London

. "Gangster No. 1"

This is a movie about sadistic evil and the obsession that drives it. On more than one level, it has the potential to blow you away and the best of these is in the storytelling, the acting and the casting. The over-stimulative punk style of editing doesn't fare so well.

It's a style that may have started with the establishment-dissing "Trainspotting" and maintained follow throughs with a basket of smart-arsed imports that includes "Go", "Snatch" and Guy Ritchie's hilarious, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" of 1998. We mention this style first because it's in your face at the outset and some might find it off-putting. Try to get past it.

A story told in a massive flashback, the ball gets rolling when a character defined as Gangster (Malcolm McDowell) (there's that anti-establishment attitude again) hears that Freddy Mays (David Thewlis) is being released from prison. Suddenly, his mask of cheerfulness is gone and he's deep into a memory-obsession with Mays that completely envelops him and brings on a flood of images from the past.

The flashback story that he sets us on brings to the screen his earlier self, whom we know as "Young Gangster" (Paul Bettany) as he's recruited by mob boss Mays. Young Gangster marvels at the boss' digs, his attire, his polish, his command, his control. He's injected with the disease that will drive him to the end of his life, the desire to be Mays. This motivates his every move. Or, if that proves impossible, he'll settle for the boss's complete attention, his admiration, his love.

So, he's not very happy when Mays meets Karen (Saffron Burrows), a dancer who sings, who looks good and whom the boss falls in love with. Credit to Thewlis for making his mob boss believable in the roll of a man whose love for a woman works in the context of his criminal enterprise. But no one's quite prepared for what Gangster is provoked to do.

In a scene that fairly well defines fear and icy relentlessness, Gangster studiously interrogates a fellow gang member and elicits from him the traitorous information that a rival gang boss is planning to take Mays out on Friday night. What he does with the information is not what might be expected and we see that his devotion to the boss has been seriously diluted because of the woman. This is clearly a guy you don't want to have as a rival. You don't want to be anywhere within the scope of his attention.

This scene of interrogation is a study of unhurried coercion in the way that "The Wild Bunch" was a study in blood perforation and it invests the movie with a dimension of worth beyond showy stylism. It achieves a state of tension rarely seen and is worth the price of admission.

Performances are notable on a number of scores. While Malcolm MacDowell's presence is part of the homage to "Clockwork Orange", as though it requires homage, the more interesting aspect for study is how he and Paul Bettany studied one another for manners and mannerisms in attempting to make an organic whole out of the Gangster character. (The way they both use, "Look into my [frigid, green] eyes", for example). For me the similarity succeeds adequately, but by a thin strand. Bettany's chilling laconacism brings to mind another potential casting for such a part: Clive Owen.

The problem with the concept of using two actors to play the same character at different times in his life is that you can't follow it through with all the other characters. At least in this film you don't. So, even if the transition is believable, the return to the present when other characters will have aged as well -- but don't in quite the same way -- the attempt at realism falls apart under the strain of incredulity. Fakery lies too close to the surface to be ignored.

David Thewlis comes, perhaps, closer to James Gandolfini's bipolarity as Tony Soprano as anyone in film gangdom these days. That is, he conveys enough of the mob leadership qualities to convince us that he's in charge: ruthlessness, criminality, style, intelligence -- while his relationship with the girl, a total and mutual commitment as we perceive it, reveals a deeper humanity that keeps us tied to him.

It's delightful to see that a favorite actress who has been absent from films for too long, is working again. We trace the thread of her great talent and style through the recent "Enigma" back through hubby Mike Leigh's disaster, "Time Code" to this portrayal of gang moll with utter devotion. To Saffron Burrows, we say, "more, more".

This is not a totally successful film entry but the smart-arsed style of multiple overlapping images, 2-frame cuts, and the occasional vibratory camera (as well as quite interesting extremes of perspective) doesn't swamp a fairly original story line. It's uniqueness in the genre doesn't derive from director Paul McGuigan's style nor his reminiscences of an earlier piece but from writer Johnny Ferguson's original treatment of obsession in a gangland setting.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Paul Bettany, as intense a sadistic killer as they come
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