Gangster No.1

nited Kingdom/Germany/Ireland 2000

Reviewed by Mark Kermode


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

London, the present. At the top table at a hotel boxing match ageing crime boss Gangster learns that his former boss Freddie Mays is being released from prison after 30 years.

London, 1968. Young thug Gangster rises through the ranks of Freddie Mays' henchmen, becoming Freddie's right-hand man. When Gangster beats up one of crime boss Lennie Taylor's men, Taylor orders the petrol bombing of Freddie's club. To avoid a gang war, Taylor and Freddie agree to a truce. As Freddie courts hostess Karen, Gangster grows jealous. When Gangster and fellow gang member Roland learn from burglar Eddie Miller of a plot to kill Freddie, Gangster kills Roland, and allows the attempt on the lives of Karen and Freddie to go ahead. After the attack, which Freddie and Karen survive, Gangster slays Lennie and his right-hand man Maxie King, for which crime Freddie is found guilty and sent to prison.

Thirty years later Gangster visits a terrified Eddie and Karen and finally meets Freddie. Gangster offers Freddie money, which he spurns, and then hands him a gun, demanding to be shot. Freddie turns his back on Gangster and leaves him alone.


When Paul McGuigan's dark feature debut was first screened in the UK, preview audiences were promised that this was their only chance to see the film uncut, so certain were the distributors that it would incur the censors' wrath. Some months later, as Gangster No. 1 opens without cuts, those early attempts to market it as an exercise in controversy-courting extremity seem misguided. For despite its often harrowing portrayal of the profession of violence (and notwithstanding Malcolm McDowell's baffling claim that the film "makes A Clockwork Orange look like Disney"), McGuigan's gangland epic is ill-served by expectations of outrage. Indeed, for a film whose plot pivots around a few instances of spectacularly brutal savagery, Gangster No. 1 remains surprisingly discreet in its choice of what to show in all its gory glory, and what to leave to the imaginings of the audience.

Owing more to Jez Butterworth's tale of feuding Soho club owners Mojo (with which Gangster No. 1 shares both a theatrical background and a production designer, Richard Bridgland) than to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, this highbrow/lowlife crime cocktail niftily adapts Louis Mellis' and David Scinto's stage play for the screen, courtesy of some solidly cinematic screenwriting by Johnny Ferguson and a surprisingly sure-footed showing by McGuigan.

McGuigan's past track record has been somewhat erratic. Although his made-for-television short The Granton Star Cause was a stand-out piece of black comedy, the subsequent big-screen trilogy which it spawned, The Acid House, lacked any form of control or coherence. Here, McGuigan proves conclusively that the failings of The Acid House were more a result of its inauspiciously 'organic' production history than of any lack of creative vision on the part of its director. For whatever else Gangster No. 1 may be, it is a cohesive whole, a singular vision of a world whose clammy odour drips from the screen in all its rancid rot.

Expertly shot by Czech director of photography Peter Sova, who brought a disjointed intimacy to films as diverse as Barry Levinson's Diner and Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco, Gangster offers a chronically fractured vision of underworld London, split not only in the juxtaposition of its two alienated time zones (the 60s, the present day) but within the confines of the frame itself. Epitomising this uneasy disparity are the figures of Freddie and Gangster. Both are knee deep in the coagulant slime of violent crime, yet beautifully attired in Jermyn Street drag, the chunky gaucheness of their glittery jewellery and furnishings offsetting the classical beauty of their suits, fashioned from shimmeringly reflective cloth, then cut to within an inch of their life.

It's the prosaic removal of these clothes that presages Gangster's most notorious (and also most inventive) sequence: the prolonged butchering by the eponymous anti-hero of his gangland rival Lennie Taylor. A textbook example of how to torture an audience's mind without ever actually assaulting their eyes, this episode is shot entirely from the point of view of the victim, thus allowing McGuigan to lead the audience through a horrendous orgy of pain while keeping their gaze always on the perpetrator rather than his crimes. The result is a sequence which is almost unwatchably discreet, a gruelling vision of lustful destruction which veers away from lascivious titillation even as the rape-like ravaging of the victim reaches a revolting climax. No wonder the censors kept their knives safely sheathed throughout.

On a performance level, the real eye-opener is Paul Bettany, who brings a genuinely believable psychosis to the role of the young Gangster, an element sadly lacking from Malcolm McDowell's wraparound turns. Although the part seems tailor made for the former droogie (producer Norma Heyman also calls it "a modern-day Caligula," invoking another of her star's touchstone roles), McDowell never relaxes into either the accent or the attitude. One cannot help but wonder how much better things could have been had the splendid Bettany handled all the Clockwork Orange-style voiceover himself. Eddie Marsan's performance as gang's bumbling runt Eddie, forever trembling with a nervous energy that seems to threaten his very existence, is also a standout; the kitchen-bound scene in which Gangster and Roland literally scare him into unconsciousness is one of the best in the film. Otherwise, it's a handsomely ugly affair, well dressed enough to make a few friends, but tough enough to make just as many enemies.


Paul McGuigan
Norma Heyman
Jonathan Cavendish
Johnny Ferguson
Based on the play by Louis Mellis
David Scinto
Director of Photography
Peter Sova
Andrew Hulme
Production Designer
Richard Bridgland
John Dankworth
©No.1 Films Ltd & Road Movies Filmproduktion GmbH
Production Companies
FilmFour presents a Pagoda Film & Television Corporation production in
association with Road Movies Filmproduktion
with the participation of British Screen and BSkyB
In association with NFH and LittleBird Productions
With the support of Filmboard Berlin Brandenburg
Executive Producer
Peter Bowles
Nicky Kentish Barnes
Ulrich Felsberg
Line Producers
Additional Photography:
Sheila Fraser Milne
German Crew:
Karsten Brünig
Production Co-ordinators
Rebecca Sutton
Road Movies:
Gabrielle Niemeyer
Production Managers
Jo Farr
German Crew:
Ralph Remstedt
Unit Manager
Claire Tovey
Location Managers
Adam Richards
Additional Photography:
Scott Rowlatt
Post-production Supervisor
Steve Barker
Assistant Directors
Chris Carreras
Robert P. Grayson
Fiona Richards
Susan Wood
2nd Unit:
Mark Fenn
Simon Moseley
Waldo Roeg
Additional Photography:
Davina Nicholson
German Crew:
Viviane Kriebisch
Script Supervisor
Libbie Barr
Jina Jay
Directors of Photography
Additional Photography:
Adrian Biddle
Alistair Walker
2nd Unit Lighting Cameramen
Mike Frift
Nic Milner
Digital Visual Effects
Mill Film
Additional Compositing
Das Werk, Munich
Back Projection/Visual Effects
Specialist Film Projection Services
Special Effects
Dave Harris
Additional Photography:
Graham Longhurst
Graphic Designer
Alan Payne
Art Directors
Philip Elton
German Crew:
Sebastian Krawinkel
Set Decorator
Penny Crawford
Stuart Kearns
Helen Xenopoulos
Storyboard Artist
Steve Forrest Smith
Costume Designer
Jany Temime
Wardrobe Supervisor
Wilfried Laudicina
Hair/Make-up Designer
Jenny Shircore
Chief Make-up/Hair Artist
Norma Webb
Make-up/Hair Artists
Fiona Maynard
Caroline Hamilton
Animated Extras
Titles/Film Opticals
Studio Three
Gilad Atzmon
Studio Co-ordinator
Gloria Luck
Music Engineer
Gary Thomas
"The Good Life" - Neil Hannon; "Lazy Sunday" - The Small Faces; "Va Ba Ba Boom" - Edmundo Ross; "Berts Apple Crumble" - The Quik; "Ten Guitars" - Engelbert Humperdinck; "Why" - Anthony Newley; "Mercy Mercy Mercy" - Saffron Burrows; "Kill" - Albertos y Los Trios Paranoias; "Blockbuster" - The Sweet"; "Who's Making Love"; "Utopia"
Esther Mary Thompson
Sound Design
Simon Fisher Turner
Sound Design Producer
Richard Preston
Sound Recordists
John Taylor
Additional Photography:
Martin Trevis
Re-recording Mixer
Tim Alban
Supervising Sound Editor
Peter Baldock
Dialogue Editor
Gillian Dodders
Background Artists
Early Call
ADR Mixer
Jens Christensen
Andie Derrick
Ben Barker
Bruce Reynolds
Stunt Co-ordinator
Jim Dowdall
Richard Hooper
German Crew:
Bernd Rautenberg
Malcolm McDowell
Gangster 55
David Thewlis
Freddie Mays
Paul Bettany
young Gangster
Saffron Burrows
Kenneth Cranham
Jamie Foreman
Lennie Taylor
Razaaq Adoti
Doug Allen
Mad John
Eddie Marsan
Eddie Miller
David Kennedy
Fat Charlie
Andrew Lincoln
Maxie King
Cavan Clerkin
Johnny Harris
Anton Valensi
Alex McSweeney
bloke in tailor's
Martin Wimbush
Binky Baker
dodgy geezer
Martyn Read
rough diamond
Johnnie Ould
Don McCorkindale
smashing bloke
Ralph Collis
Charles Anderson
Arthur Nightingale
toilet attendant
Jack Pierce
Jack the Lad
Emma Griffiths-Malin
Gary McCormack
Giggler Bennett
Sean Chapman
bent cop
Georgina Bull
Fat Charlie's girl
Jo-Anne Nighy
Simone Bowkett
Roland's girls
Caroline Pegg
Mark Montgomerie
thug car
Dave Ould
Lisa Ellis
Simon Marc
Freddie's attacker
Tony Denham
club manager
Nadine Leonard
Jo McInnes
Lorraine Stanley
attacker's friend
Wayne Matthews
Tony Bowers
Danny Webster
Film Four Distributors
9,232 feet
102 minutes 35 seconds
Dolby Stereo
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011