Gangster No. 1 (2000)

Kirsten Markson

Gangster No. 1's style and plot are stale.

Gangster No. 1

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Saffron Burrows
Studio: Film Four
First date: 2000
US Release Date: 2002-06-14

Gangster No. 1, set in the swinging underworld of 1960s South London gangs, follows the rise of Gangster (played by Paul Bettany as a young man and Malcolm McDowell when older, narrating his life story in flashback). Despite attempts to place a "cool Britannia" sheen on the story, Gangster No. 1's style and plot are stale. Further, a disappointment with this brutal film is not strictly that it is violent, as there is certainly a place for violence in a film of this genre, but that the violence remains unexamined. What the film does examine is envy.

Coveting the wealth and power of his mentor Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), Gangster eventually gets sick of being second in command and brutally, almost single-handedly, kicks off a war between rival gangs. This war gives Gangster his time to shine, but the time for this film has definitely past. Director Paul McGuigan attempts to inject a visceral thrill to this familiar tale, mostly by relying on unique camera tricks and scenes of intense violence. Gangster No. 1 is being released in the United States two years after the film was first shown in the UK. Echoing several superior London gang dramas over the past few years, such as Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast -- and referring quite directly to A Clockwork Orange -- Gangster No. 1 feels more like Gangster No. 37.

What sets Gangster No. 1 apart from these other films is the absolute lack of irony or comedy. While there is element of tongue-in-cheek in the aforementioned films, which take stereotypes playfully over the top, Gangster No. 1 is too deadly serious. Gangster's mantra: "I'm number one, number one. I'm fucking number one," echoes Ben Kingsley's obsessive cajoling of Ray Winstone's character in Sexy Beast. Like Kingsley's Don Logan, Gangster is a monomaniac, obsessed by his own need to be top dog. While Kingsley brought depth and vulnerability to his performance, the development of the Gangster character is too flimsy and shallow to support the kind of rage he unleashes.

Plucked from obscurity and referred to only as Gangster in the film, the main character is motivated by greed, bloodlust, and an obsessive jealousy of his boss, Freddie. Gangster is seduced by the thrill playing the part of Freddie's bodyguard but his connection to Freddie is cemented by envy, not loyalty. While Gangster revels in stepping out as part of a group, he remains an outsider in the gang. He relishes the opportunity to decapitate a fellow gang member to initiate the conflict that allows him to take over not only Freddie's position as head of the gang, but also Freddie's apartment and the material accouterments of the good life: motivated not only by his desire to have Freddie's possessions, but to become Freddie. This last proves a source of frustration. Where Freddie is stylish and charming, Gangster is brutish and psychotic.

Gangster's need to impress Freddie even as he betrays him reveals the hint of sexual desire that forms the film's most interesting dynamic. Here, again, Gangster No. 1 rehashes territory covered better in Sexy Beast. In both films, the relationship between fellow gang members is interrupted by the presence of a woman, who invades the homosocial world of the gang. In Gangster No. 1, Gangster betrays Freddie when the boss falls for local singer Karen (Saffron Burrows), and is busy making wedding plans.

For Gangster, sex is violence; he displaces his desire, for both Freddie and Karen, by acting out malicious fantasies with carnal ferocity. The gruesome, intimate portrayal of this violence is director McGuigan's one stab at originality. Using odd camera angles and assorted tricks, the film showcases Gangster's psychotic outbursts. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, Gangster strips down to his underwear and takes an axe to a rival crime boss. Most of this action is captured with a "victim cam" effect, which allows Gangster to glare menacingly as he harasses his victim while the audience watches from the murdered man's perspective. This is gruesome and necessary to the plot, maybe, but lacking any emotional punch because Gangster is such a one-dimensional character.

While the film clearly shows that Gangster is a psychopath, the script doesn't sustain interest in such a predictably crazy personality. Splitting the character between two actors, as the film does, is distracting, because the performances of Bettany and McDowell undermine rather than complement each other. Bettany's star might be rising (he's been praised for his work in the U.S. films, A Knight's Tale and A Beautiful Mind), but McDowell's seems to have set. He has entered the phase of hamming in what looks like a parody of his former self. This affects Bettany's performance because, in looking to create congruencies between the older and younger Gangster, he adopts the sinister stare and other mannerisms that McDowell made famous in A Clockwork Orange and uses again in this film; when Gangster challenges his victims with the catchphrase "Look into my eyes," Bettany appears to channel McDowell's famous portrayal of lead droog Alex.

This brutality and McDowell's narration also echo A Clockwork Orange. Where A Clockwork Orange envisioned a vile future, Gangster No. 1 portrays a vicious past. While the former was shocking because it dared to question how violence might be controlled by violation of individual rights, the latter doesn't examine its protagonist's aptitude for mowing down anyone in his path. Gangster No. 1 locks the viewer into Gangster's murderous logic, but offers little depth of view.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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