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Gangster No. 1 Review

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On the eve of his mentor's release from jail, Gangster 55 reflects on the last 30 years of crime and cruelty.

★★★★★

Given the dreadful quality of most post-Smoking Barrels British gangster movies, plus the fact that Malcolm McDowell's recent career has been less than stellar, this '60s-set venture could easily have been lost in the shuffle.

McDowell plays ageing Cockney crook Gangster 55 who, on hearing that the mentor he betrayed three decades previously (Thewlis) is about to be released from jail, finds himself reminiscing about the good old days. At least, they were good for the youthful 55 - a tremendous performance of icy Nietzschean emptiness by Bettany - if not for his soon-to-be-butchered contemporaries. Before long his sights have levelled on Thewlis himself, who the sexually ambivalent Bettany believes has gone soft after falling for nightclub chanteuse, Karen (Burrows).

Finally, with 55 now in control of the entire operation, McDowell leads us through a brief history of the last 30 years (horse race-fixing and lots of bloodshed) before preparing to face both Thewlis and his own demons in the present day.

A stylistically superb jaunt through psychotically Swinging London - where every shoe is handmade and every transgressor a "caaaaahnt!" - Gangster No. 1 benefits from both an ace Johnny Dankworth score and a truly demented turn from McDowell in what must be his best performance since 1971's A Clockwork Orange.

The real plaudits, however, should go to photographer-turned-director McGuigan, whose sharp eye succeeds in stripping away the myth of the luv-a-duck '60s crim while still allowing the audience to wallow in his all-too-enticing lifestyle.

The antidote to the 'gore-blimey-g'v'nor' school of gangster film- making. This is sleekly shot and features scene stealing turns by Bettany and McDowell.

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