Gangster No. 1

Who would want to be Freddie Mays?
Paul McGuigan
Paul Bettany, Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Saffron Burrows
The Setup: 
Lowly gangster covets the position and perceived coolness of the top gangster.

From Paul McGuigan, holder of the title My Favorite Living Director Who Is Not Brian De Palma, comes this gangster film from early in his career. He later went on to direct Wicker Park, Lucky Number Slevin, and the fairly execrable Push. Unfortunately my original, detailed review for this film, as well as all associated screen grabs, were irretrievably lost in the Cinema de Merde Hard Drive Crash of 2009, so now I’m going to have to recreate it from my notes and vague memories. And obviously I care enough about this movie to do that.

We open in the present day with our protagonist, played now by Malcolm MacDowall. He is never named in the film, but once I thought I heard someone call him Phil, so we’ll call him Phil. The credits unfold as the song “The Good Life” ironically plays as we see Phil at a dinner club with a boxing match going on in the middle. We see him go to a urinal, where a few drops of urine end up in his champagne. He turns and addresses the camera that he’s not so dumb as to drink it.

Now we flash back to 1968, when Phil is played by Paul Bettany. Phil is hired by dapper gangster Freddie Mays, played by David Thewlis. He goes with Freddie to beat up some thugs of a rival gangster, and we see that Phil is rather more enthusiastic in meting out violence than the other gangsters. He goes with Freddie as his bodyguard as he meets rival gangster Lenny Taylor, whose bodyguard is played by Viggo Mortensen. As he and Freddie drive back, we see Phil staring at Freddie, coveting his suit, his watch, his tie pin, and his position. Freddie sees this and offers Phil his tie pin, which says “FM.” Phil puts it on and wears it the rest of the movie, despite the fact that these obviously aren’t his initials. Is it a little bit homoerotic? No, it’s a LOT homoerotic, and it continues throughout the film.

Freddie goes to a strip club, where the sweet and beautiful Karen [Saffron Burrows] flirts with Phil, mistaking him for Freddie, then immediately takes off with Freddie when the situation is cleared up. Karen enrages Phil for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand, but we know have a lot to do with his homoerotic love for Freddie. He stares at Freddie as Freddie stares at Karen, saying “And you, Mister Freddie Mays, you had to go swimming in her eyes, dancing in her hair.” Karen, like many in Freddie’s circle, immediately senses that there is something off and quite dangerous about Phil.

Phil is sent to shakedown this guy Benny, and we have a very scary, intense scene of torment that shows Benny snotting all over himself in absolute terror. By now Freddie is seriously distancing himself from Phil, to Phil’s rage and dismay, and Karen makes no secret of her revulsion for him. He also makes his feelings for her quite clear, hating her for coming between him and Freddie.

Now Phil stages a coup in which he arranges for Freddie to be shot and Karen to have her throat slit. He sits in a nearby car and watches it happen. He goes over to Lenny Taylor’s, shoots him in the leg, then lays out his torture instruments. He proceeds to torture him to death in one of the most violent, bloody scenes I have ever seen in any movie. This movie does not back down, and we see from Lenny’s perspective as Phil strips down to his underwear and CHOPS LENNY UP. Phil then sits in a chair in a daze that is both sexual and anguished, seemingly wondering why this big, great moment for him somehow wasn’t more. Freddie is arrested for Lenny’s murder and sent to prison, paving the way for Phil to assume his throne. It isn’t long before Phil takes his place in Freddie’s accustomed seat.

Now, 75 minutes in, we return to Malcolm McDowell as Phil, 30 years later. We have a nice sequence that shows what has been happening in the meantime—he has expanded his mafia’s business to robbing banks, casinos, and horse-racing places. It helps immeasurably that McDowell and Bettany look so much like each other—the transition is quite believable. Anyway, finally, Freddie is coming to see him, which, Phil seems to think, will somehow make sense of everything and put his entire life in perspective. First he sees Karen—who is still alive!—and yells at her. He learns to his dismay that Freddie and Karen are going to be married. She waited 30 years for him! It hardly needs to be pointed out that no one waited 30 years for Phil—no one even wants him alive. Freddie is quiet and humbled now, in very good old age makeup, and the situation with Karen and his general life satisfaction leads the hyper-manic Phil to scream “What do you got that I haven’t got?” Freddie is wistful about his past, admitting that he was vain, taking stock of his life, and finally asking “Who would want to be Freddie Mays?” Well, you know who. Phil tries to get Freddie to kill him, but Freddie is above all that now, he’s moved on, and he refuses. This seems to be the last blow for Phil—Freddie won’t even kill him—and he ends up wobbling precariously, drunk, on the precipice of a building, screaming “I’m number one!”

Although it seems almost impossible, it seems that this film managed to add something new to the gangster genre. Sure, what it’s saying isn’t entirely new, but the way it’s saying it is; through such an intimate psychological portrait that includes so much naked, raw emotion. The movie establishes at once that Phil is a little pathetic and that his yearning not just to take Freddie’s place, but to actually BE Freddie, is misguided, and the result of his dangerously incomplete personality. It doesn’t shy away from the homoeroticism implicit in Phil’s wish to be Freddie’s favorite, to BE Freddie [a classic Freudian interpretation of homosexuality is the wish to actually become the object of one’s interest]—and especially his vehement jealousy over Freddie’s interest in Karen and uncontrollable hatred of Karen herself. Finally, this movie distinguishes itself through its extreme violence. But unlike most mafia movies, in which the violence is handled in a way that tsk-tsks “Isn’t this just awful?” while actually delivering the message “Can you believe how fucking awesome this is?” [witness the African-American worship of Scarface—even the “my little friend” moment, when its hero has completely lost his mind and is doomed]. The violence here is genuinely disturbing, featuring real psychological torture, and Phil is very frightening and seems truly insane while he’s doing it. So the intensity of everything here, plus the psychological richness of its character study, is what sets this film apart.

The performances are all uniformly good, with Bettany standing out just for his confidence in such an early role. Thewlis conveys a thoughtfulness and sensible center throughout, and Saffron Burrows is radiant and comes off a very real person. Director McGuigan once again uses a lot of flashy technique, but only when it serves his story and helps to guide the audience along, understanding when to back off when the story doesn’t need any additional flash.

Overall, a very interesting gangster films as psychological portrait, with violence so extreme it pushes the entire thing into horror movie territory. If you’ve seen everything there is to see in the gangster genre, you might want to give this one a try and see what surprises it might have to offer.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s well-directed, wonderfully acted, psychologically rich and goddamned violent.