A middle-aged crime boss smugly reflects back from 1999, narrating the brutality which made him triumphant - and feared. As an unnamed young hood in Swinging 60's London, he aped his mod boss Freddie Mays, and seemed to do anything for him. But his narration exposes all-consuming envy: of Freddie's supremacy, and especially his tall bird. The baby shark develops his viciousness and backstabbing, scheming to be Gangster No. 1.Written by
The two actors who play the "gangster" at the two points in his life are 7 inches different in height. See more »
In various shots there are modern day street lamps. These would not have been around in 1968. See more »
[song "The Good Life" begins as scene opens at boxing match; crowd noises]
What? With Scotland Yard breathing down me neck? Fuck off. Do me a favor!
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Gangsters are vicious, murderous thugs, whose power is based on uniform, military might, a preying on the weak and a contempt for democracy. Nazis were vicious, murderous thugs whose power was based on uniform, military might, a preying on the weak and a contempt for democracy. Ergo, gangsters are fascists, and, double ergo, films which portray gangsters without a wagging finger are also fascist. This is the level of critical debate in the UK at the moment, that has greeted the recent slew of British gangster films in the wake of LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. One misinformed hack in a major broadsheet even insinuated a link between this movement and recent, violent London crime.
The problem with these films is an aesthetic, not an ethical one, and the type of ignorant criticism they have drawn reveals a lingering bourgeois contempt for a genre that has proved over the decades to be infinitely varied, subtle, adaptable, but, most importantly, through an awesomely powerful iconography, capable of exploring ideas about society and the individual, modernisation, capitalism, dissent, cinema, masculinity, violence, the body, role-play, psychology, sociology, metaphysics. Can a genre embraced and remodelled by directors as diverse as Feuillade, Von Sternberg, Hawks, Lang, Lewis, Melville, Godard, Suzuki, Coppola, Scorcese, Kitano, among many others be considered negligible? The problem with these new films, as I say, is not that they are overly violent or glamorise crime, but that they are ineptly made, hackneyed, opportunistic, with their makers revealing little knowledge of, or love for, the genre in which they're working.
It's a pity for GANGSTER NO. 1 that it got caught up in this cycle, because it is a very good film, that maybe fails only in overambition, and that's not something we get to complain about very often. Ironically, the film's nearest model is not its sorry peers, or even archetypal classics like GET CARTER, but an American film, Soderbergh's THE LIMEY. Maybe these directors' non-Englishness (MacGuigan is Irish) allows them to cut through the phoney nostalgia more easily than native filmmakers, but their dismantling of gangster mythology is almost Melvillean (eg LE DOULOS).
There is the same fluidity here as in LIMEY, the same sense of the past's stranglehold on the present, the same impatience with genre's limits, with the impossibility of family, with the stifling of humanity by barbaric codes and ideals. MacGuigan goes one further than Soderbergh - both directors emphasis role-playing, casting iconic 60s stars who seem to be making it up as they go along, having a laugh, trying on accents and clothes, but while Terence Stamp achieves some kind of grace, Malcolm MacDowall goes very uncoolly mad.
There are three pointers in the first ten minutes that tell us where the film is going in its refusal to glamorise, to mythologise. First is the soundtrack, which is not the pumping macho nostalgic music beloved of the LOCK STOCK wannabes, but Sacha Distel - sung with heartbreaking sincerity by Neil Hannon, but Sacha Distel none the less. Secondly, the film opens at a business-like dinner of old gangsters blustering about the old times, MacDowell louder than most. If the flippant editing didn't tell us, the bathetic mocking of MacDowell when he leaves to relieve himself suggests that we shouldn't take everything he says too faithfully (or, in his straight-to-camera gesture, that he knows a lot more, eg about these 'friends', than he's letting on - is he a godlike creator?). In the third scene, champagne glass beside his feet, we notice his aim isn't quite what it was, and the title takes on rather a different, less iconic meaning.
It is this man who tells the story, and it quickly becomes clear that he is a raving lunatic, and thus as reliable as Humbert or M. This has two effects - every scene becomes infected by his madness, is heightened, in terms of colour and composition, by the way he sees the world, which is hightly unstable and schizophrenic, alternately jokey and horribly violent, with certain markers recurring in a kind of dream loop.
Secondly, we must look beyond his words to find the truth of each scene, forcing the viewer to play detective. This takes the power away from MacDowell, which is appropriate in a film about doubles, about hoow one man steals another man's identity (hence the foregrounding of mirrors, reflections, as well as the commodities that define people), only to lose his own.
MacDowell is never known by a name (his character is played by two actors, the others by one), and becomes a mere cipher, though with very real, frightening power, while Frankie remains essentially himself, his image a mere show of strength, never his whole self. The style reinforces this, and perhaps reflects MacGuigan's background in advertising, but neither Scott nor Parker ever rooted their style in character to such effect, and the fragmentation, heightening and distortion of imagery could have two meanings - they reveal a chaotic world which MacDowell, with all his will, and figured in his voiceover, has managed to unify through the power of his identity and voice; or they are a sign of breakdown. The extraordinary coda reveals which.
There have been complaints about the excessive violence of this film, but these scenes have a hallucinatory, ritualistic quality appropriate to a highly disciplined madman. GANGSTER's abstraction - that it's subject is gangster mythology rather than one particular protagonist per se, does not mean that it avoids social grounding - the vivid recreation of 60s London, only makes the unaccountable, inexplicable appearance of this phenomenon all the more alarming.
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