The image of the gangster began to undergo changes in the late 1980s: the salt-of-the-earth crims popular in the 60s and 70s were no longer viable, perhaps because the class antagonisms which favoured these working class boys made alright wasn't as potent anymore. Kenneth Noye was possibly the most indicative big-time gangster of this era, involved in theft, protection, and the nascent market of smuggling ecstasy into the country. Implicated in cop-killing and murders, Noye gained notoriety when he murdered a bystander on the M25 in a “road rage incident”, although this more likely revealed the nature of Noye’s life underneath his skin. There was also Terry Adams who “made the Krays look like clowns”, involved in drug importation and numerous murders. The point could be made that more characteristic were dozens of faceless individuals quietly setting up the coming tragedy of the 80s-90s heroin and crack epidemics, making no waves, quietly trousering the profits and moving on. The British depiction of the gangster subsequently faltered and retreated into nostalgia (the Kemp brothers starring The Krays). America would be hit harder by this wave of nostalgia for good old-fashioned criminality: retro Mafioso in Goodfellas; central casting gothic villains in Silence of the Lambs. More indicative was the 1986 arrest of ‘Ice Man’ Richard Kuklinski, a mafia-hired serial killer able to shift easily from unconflicted murder and torture to family barbecues and Christmas mornings with the kids. Unlike the Mafioso caricatures Kuklinski is an eerily dead and empty presence, calmly and factually explaining that day’s brutality, rather like the Six O’clock news.
A bit like the heritage politics being kicked around at the moment by people concerned about legacy and this that and the other, the “community gangster” has a tendency to come back. The popularity of the Krays was a warped sort of sense of working class solidarity. The popularity of the lad gangster movies of Guy Ritchie were to a degree getting to the heart of this change: actual class experience became cultural experience. Irony, knowingness, the whole Loaded-era mess that marked out how regressive the 1990s were becoming. Not to say the Krays actually were a positive class-based thing: much like the Spirit of 45 crowd the attachment to heritage politics is dubious (oil talk: the possibility of postwar reform was guaranteed by the backing Attlee gave to toppling Mossadegh in Iran and crushing the political movement, therefor securing Britain’s colonial holdings in the Iranian oilfields). The East End of London was “a much nicer, safer place”, in the words of Kray friend and BNP supporter Eileen Sheridan-Price. Simpler times.
The film Gangster No. 1 (2000) directed by Paul McGuigan is a worthwhile examination of what gangsterism and the brutal mentality necessary to sustain neoliberalism/capitalism are related. Behind every Cheery Cockney or Jack-the-Lad there awaits a Kenneth Noye to erupt in anger, a Richard Kuklinski prepared to core-out their humanity. It contradicts much of what follows in the wave of Pulp Fiction: gangsters, retro-shit, and irony are not cool. The characters in Gangster No. 1 are either cruelly blunt about their ambition or refreshingly sincere about their romance. The retroscape is something sick (the final scene of the film takes place in a room hermetically preserved with late 60s, the last preserve of a damaged and dangerous personality). Gangsterism is analogous with what lies beneath fun funny neoliberalism: cold hatred and ambition.
Gangster No. 1 (2000) tells the story of a low-level hood who rises to the top of the London underworld by gradually taking over his old boss's territory. Gangster No. 1 is a contradiction in terms of the British gangster film. The 1990s wave of Pulp Fiction-inspired British filmaking was driven by cool and funny characters; 60s, 70s, and 80s, gangsters were similarly honourable, hard-done-by, and honest, rarely purely monsters. Gangster No. 1 presents the audience with a gangster character divorced of any personality, expect cruelty and ambition: so anonymous is the film's main character he is never referred to by name, credited only as Gangster. Gangster (played in 1999 by Malcolm McDowell and Paul Bettany in 60s/70s flashback sequences) is a tall, thin, young man who begins anonymously dressed in denims and long-hair until he is contacted by career criminal Freddie Mays (David Thewlis). Gangsters only ambition at this point is to undergo a metamorphosis into a Mod through copying Mays' fine-cut Italian suits and tie-pins singling him out as a somebody (transforming from proletarian drudgery to proto-tycoon chic). After demonstrating his usefulness as a 'business associate' Gangster decks himself out in the sort of clothing then adorning The Who, giving him a faint resemblance to Sting in Quadrophenia. From there on Gangster puts in his time with the usual set-pieces of British gangsterdom: debt collecting, dangling people off tower-blocks, dropping a car on somebody's head.
What Gangster is really after, and the goal he is working towards, is the total consumption of Freddie Mays: his clothes, his flat, his empire, his girlfriend. Mays is depicted as having a suaveness and openness that Gangster will never have: Mays visits fancy clubs and eats haute-cuisine; Gangster is repulsed by Mays' joking about the homosexual insinuation of two men dining alone, misogynistic towards most women he meets, and seethes with racist abuse when murdering a black associate. Gangster learns that Mays is about to be murdered and does nothing about it: Mays and his girlfriend Karen are cut down by rivals whilst Gangster watches from afar with plain relish as Mays is shot down and Karen’s throat is slashed. Gangster subsumes Mays’ empire, symbolizing this total absorption by occupying Mays’ flat and wearing his favourite tie-pin gifted to him by Mays. Not only does Gangster take up Mays’ criminal empire but also begins to take on his hobbies; Gangster becomes a keen player of horses and finishes the horse fresco Mays starts but was unable to finish before going to prison.
Later in the film Gangster, an aged Malcolm McDowell, learns that Freddie Mays has been released from prison, poor but contented, still with Karen and now possessing an art degree. Gangster invites him to his (Mays) flat, completely unchanged since Gangster took it over in the 60s. Gangster interrogates Mays on what it is that he’s got that Gangster hasn’t: Mays fails to be impressed with the expensive clothes, decor, and artwork on display. Gangster is infuriated and gives Mays a gun, ordering him to kill him and end his misery: Mays resists the temptation and walks out of the flat. Later, Gangster stands atop his block of flats, tosses a cloud of money into the air, and leaps into the night, unable to accept that he can’t imitate his way into feeling like a success.
How Gangster No. 1 subverts cultural trends is in its depiction of maleness and criminality. Laddish Guy Ritchie-ism and ironic distance are suggested to be a thin cover over deeply held sexism. It is no coincidence that Malcolm McDowell returns to play a gangster here; McDowell played a similar character once before in Our Friends in the North (1996). The character of Benny Barrett is somewhere between the Krays-style community villain and the Noyes/Kuklinski psychopath spectre. Barrett looks after his people, spends lavishly in Soho, and acts in a decent manner; there is the suggestion that without Barrett more violent gangs would drift into the Soho vice game. Through close cooperation with the police he even becomes a pillar of the community sort of figure. However in scenes with his accomplice Geordie he reveals a deep cynicism and loathing towards women; he tells Geordie that he is not bothered when he finds he has been having an affair with his girlfriend: “Women are shit, Geordie.”
As Paul Bettany, Gangster reveals his deep loathing of women when he and Mays meet Mays’ future girlfriend Karen (Saffron Burrows) in a club. Mays’ homosexual jibes have already unsettled Gangster’s sense of masculinity: he is harsh and abusive when the club owner sends over Karen and another woman to provide company. He has no interest in playing the flirting games that Mays and Karen engage in once they’ve hit it off, after a brief misunderstanding that allowed Gangster to pretend to Karen he was Mays. In later encounters there is a definite sinister vibe projected towards Karen as she takes more and more of Mays’ time away from Gangster. A repressed homosexuality angle could be read into this (the Krays’ sexuality was not clear-cut either) but a consumerist reading perhaps works better. Karen interferes with the consumption of Mays and his lifestyle as Gangster No. 1: the erotic charge Gangster has for Mays is in his consumable image of sharp suits and smart interior decorating. The prime industry of McDowell’s previous gangster Benny Barrett is in pornography, where the thrill for the watcher is to imagine themselves performing the acts they are witnessing. Gangster is hanging around with Mays like a porn addict with a shelf of rancid VHS: unlike the porn watcher however, Gangster knows he has the stamina and smarts to stop imagining and step in-front of the camera and become the performer.
Beyond readily consumable images of capitalist porno, sexuality and eroticism become sickening and horrific. It has already been established that Gangster regards women and romantic relationships as something inherently detestable. Two of the film’s most powerful scenes are distortions of sexual and romantic encounters that further the point that hateful sexism and capitalist porno gangsterism go hand-in-hand. Mays and Karen are heading down the street towards a taxi; Gangsters knows that rival criminal Lennie Taylor is about to ambush them. He watches with barely contained glee as Lennie and his men corner the couple and shoot down Mays: he is forced to watch while Karen’s throat is cut in front of him. They crawl into each other’s embrace under the street lights. When Mays encounters Gangster in 1999 he is mocked over his love for her and his wounded gesture. Gangster does make a case that Mays was a love rival who deserved what he had coming, but the way in which he describes Karen is as a collection of body parts, eyes, hair, mouth, belly, blood, like when he describes the way Mays’ suit is tailored earlier in the film. There is no real love here: romance when conceived of is something biological and categorical and commodified.
(a sub-point: two British cultural figures of the era who are evoked in the film are J.G. Ballard and Francis Bacon. Ballard is less strongly felt but large, modernist tower blocks and motorways make up a lot of the screen locations. A mechanic is forcefully introduced into congress with his car when it is dropped on his head. Also a sense that the luxury flat where Mays and then Gangster rule their empires becomes a cell, as Ballard’s characters tended to find high-rise living problematic, although really Ballard was all about how this liberated people so the point is maybe a bit too laboured. The retro use of tower blocks is interesting in terms of retro comparing its bleakness to the All Your Favourite Sweets, Records, and Haircuts route of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes. Francis Bacon is evoked in one particular way: at points in the movie the picture becomes distorted and Gangster is screaming to himself, mouth hideously agape. The tortured screech appears unheard by his fellow characters and Gangster reverts to ‘normal’ as if it were a sudden intrusion of something dark and evil. It resembles particularly Bacon’s 1954 painting Figure with Meat. Bacon appears concerned with the inner putrescence of daily living and all human behaviour, something rotten and horrific beneath the skin-line. Bacon was also a resident of Soho.)
The films second perverse scene comes as Gangster breaks into the flat of rival gangster Lenny Taylor, who has just near-fatally wounded Mays and Karen. He is shot down by Gangster and is left immobile on the floor leering and making come-ons at Gangster (“Finish it now you bastard!”). Gangster slowly removes his clothing, piece by piece, leaving it neatly folded on a table. He loving lays out his tools. He strips down to his vest and underwear and sets to work slowly mutilating Taylor with a knife. There is a queasy erotic charge to the scene as Gangster hovers over Taylor penetrating with him, making confessional small-talk, passionately arguing with him. Only in this intimate state can Gangster speak candidly and emotionally with someone. Taylor after a long ordeal is dispatched and Gangster collapses covered in blood (repeating Mays’ bloodied gesture of crawling to his stricken girlfriend leaving a trail “like a snail” as it is later put).
Further charge is added to the scene when it is considered Taylor is played by Jamie Foreman, son of Freddy Foreman, helpfully on-hand to dispose of Reggie Kray’s victim Jack McVitie. That this link to the community gangster is so brutally, thoroughly, and humiliatingly dispatched suggests the film is well aware that one ideal has been crushed by another. Much like the myth of the gangster, by 2000 there was little doubt several years into New Labour that culturally one trend had beaten another. The cynical obsessive view has become a dominant one and the country (remarkably so in the past month or so) has become a harsher less-caring place. Gangster is a warped and grotesque shadow-image of the consumer. Gangsterism is the default mode of the country’s swindling politicians, bankers, coppers, and reporters.
“'93. Maggie’s children suffer the effects of the 80s. Do we fuck! Business is as good as ever.”
As good as ever.