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When a young gangster (Paul Bettany) starts working for gang leader Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), known as the Butcher of Mayfair, he dreams of being everything that Freddie is: smooth, sophisticated, impeccably dressed, always with the right women, and driving the fanciest cars. Freddie takes the young gangster (unnamed in the film but listed as Gangster 55 in the credits) under his wing as a potential war with a rival gang starts to heat up. After Freddie falls for Karen (Saffron Burrows), whom 55 had his eye on, the young gangster lies in wait for an opportunity to change things, and when that moment comes, he leaves a bloodbath of betrayal in his wake.
Paul McGuigan's GANGSTER NO. 1 is framed by scenes set in the present, where the aging 55, played with delicious villainy by Malcolm McDowell, narrates the tale of his younger self's rise to power in Soho in the late 1960s. Bettany is a revelation as 55, who seems to enjoy a bit of the old ultraviolence now and again; when he tells a potential victim (or even a friend) to look into his eyes, it is hard for the audience as well not to be mesmerised--and scared out of their wits. McGuigan's fast-paced direction includes creative split screens, extreme close-ups, fireballs coming right at the viewer, and a sweeping handheld camera all set to a swinging 1960s score.