Stylized Tale of the London Mob: Mug Versus Gentleman Gangster

Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1 , from a screenplay by Johnny Ferguson, seeks to transcend its genre with a curiously stylized, quasi-Shakespearean portrait of pure misogynist evil, one that requires the services of two actors for a single blackguard: Malcolm McDowell as a London mob chieftain in the present, and Paul Bettany as the same character 30 years earlier, in 1968, when he began working for Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) as a hired thug. Freddie is a model of high style to which the younger gangster aspires with pure lust and narrow-eyed envy.

A legend in crime circles for having gotten away with killing a crooked cop, Freddie has reached a point where he can delegate most of the violence in his trade to such underlings as Tommy (Kenneth Cranham), Mad John (Doug Allen), Fat Charlie (David Kennedy), Roland (Razaaq Adoti), Billy (Cavan Clerkin), Eddie (Eddie Marsan) and, most fearlessly of all, Mr. Bettany’s Gangster, the new boy on the block. When Freddie sees that Gangster is truly without fear, he makes him his second-in-command. Gangster becomes intoxicated as much by Freddie’s possessions as by Freddie himself. He will do anything for Freddie and against Freddie’s enemies, all the way up to torture and murder. Freddie and Gangster seem an invincible team. In Gangster’s words, it’s “Moët and fucking Chandon all the fucking way.” But then a beautiful girl named Karen (Saffron Burrows) enters the scene, and takes up more and more of Freddie’s time and attention. After failing to drive away the clear-eyed Karen with not-so-thinly-veiled insults, Gangster feels that Freddie is about to betray him for Karen, and that he must act first if the opportunity arises.

It does in the form of a rival gang leader, Lennie Taylor (Jamie Foreman), who shares Gangster’s perception that Freddie has been made soft by Karen and is ready for plucking. Through a complicated series of bloody intrigues, Gangster first allows Freddie and Karen to fall into a trap without warning them that Lennie Taylor is out to get them, and then disposes of Lennie Taylor and his bodyguard in such a way as to incriminate Freddie, who was known as “the Butcher of Mayfair” in his salad days.

What’s the motivation amid all the blood-letting? Remember Edward G. Robinson’s Capone-like gang boss setting out to kill his old pal, played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., for becoming involved with a woman in Little Caesar (1930)? There was a homoerotic subtext at work then, as there is in Gangster No. 1 now. Our young Gangster does not come at Freddie directly, but lets a rival gangster do the dirty work. But the end result is the same: Freddie is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and he goes away for 30 years. Gangster takes over the mob without any trouble; deep down, he’d always coveted Freddie’s throne.

The story is told in flashbacks, with a monstrously made-up Mr. McDowell playing the Macbeth-like Gangster No. 1 (Bettany’s Gangster aged 30 years), with nary a Lady Macbeth to “soften” him or even to steel his resolve. He prefers hanging out with the boys, watching boxing matches in hotel suites and exchanging vile jokes. When Gangster No. 1 learns that Freddie is getting out of prison after 30 years, he realizes that he has remained obsessed with Freddie all this time and must have a final accounting with him. Both Freddie and Karen have almost miraculously survived the murderous assaults by Lennie Taylor and his henchmen, and now, 30 years later, are prepared to resume their relationship. Almost as miraculously, they are played by the same actors, David Thewlis and Saffron Burrows, though mostly in middle and long shots.

The close-ups are reserved for Mr. McDowell and Mr. Bettany in their blood-soaked and sneering moments of hollow triumph over the world around them. There’s no moralistic comeuppance for Gangster No. 1. Nor is there any evidence that the treacherous second-in-command has inherited Freddie’s exquisitely high style, though he schemed and slaughtered to acquire it. All the misappropriated tie pins and cufflinks from London’s Bond Street cannot transform a mug into a gentleman gangster. And the mug knows it.

Entangled Inuit

Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner ( Atanarjuat ), from a screenplay by Paul Apak Angilirq, takes us a long way from Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), when the Inuit were known hereabouts as Eskimos, and my uncle drove an ice-cream truck selling Eskimo-pie sandwiches. And then there were all the jokes about selling iceboxes to the Eskimos as proof of one’s selling skills. Back in the 60′s, I wrote of Flaherty in The American Cinema : “By involving himself in his material, he established a cinematic principle that parallels Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics, namely that the mere observation of nuclear (and cinematic) particles alters the properties of these particles. One of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema was recorded when Nanook smilingly acknowledged the presence of Flaherty’s camera in his igloo. The director was not spying on Nanook or attempting to capture Nanook’s life in the raw. He was collaborating with Nanook on a representation rather than a simulation of existence. What Flaherty understood so well was the potential degeneration of the documentary into voyeurism when the images of the camera were not reprocessed in the mind of the artist.”

I must confess that this passage seems somewhat paternalistic today, in that it never seems to have occurred to me (or Flaherty) that future Nanooks of the North would be capable of recording their own lives, stories and myths on film, as they do in The Fast Runner , which is only incidentally a documentary, though more of a place than of a people, and not at all of a time. I have agitated for several years against the schoolmarmish term “documentary,” and have suggested instead “nonfiction” as a less pedantic and misleading substitute. Alas, my campaign has met with only limited success, and the word “documentary”-popularized by the British-Canadian John Grierson-continues to ghettoize a great deal of the most vibrant cinema of our time.

The Fast Runner defies any category, old or new, in its communal scope and historical perspective. Mr. Kunuk and Mr. Angilirq have worked apart from modern Inuit existence to reconstruct a world that existed centuries ago, before the advent of Europeans. The title of the film refers to a character in legend who ran naked from three pursuers who had already killed his brother. The feud began in a dispute over a woman pledged to one man, but claimed by another with the woman’s consent. There is no night shooting in the film, with its barren Arctic landscapes, but the diurnal rhythm is maintained between daylight exteriors and golden-hued interiors.

One warning to the viewer: The Fast Runner is slow to unfold, a laborious untangling of family and clan relationships and conflicts, and even once the action begins, it can be a trial to the non-Inuit viewer (the film is nearly three hours long). It has nonetheless won many honors and audience-appreciation awards at film festivals around the world. Its long takes on the cryptic facial expressions of characters who have suffered great losses and violations generate viewer sympathy, but are never condescending. The pain is acted, in however elementary a fashion, rather than actually endured. Like so many-perhaps too many-movies around right now, The Fast Runner can be safely recommended simply because there is nothing else remotely like it. It’s creatively authentic, and its creators are also its subject.

Love in Haifa

The 18th Israel Film Festival begins on June 13 at the Clearview Cinema 59th Street East Theatre, with an opening-night gala at the Directors’ Guild of America. The opening-night film is Lina and Slava Chaplin’s A Trumpet in the Wadi , from a screenplay by Amit Lior, based on a novel by Sami Michel. As I am writing this notice, the news is reporting a suicide bomber in Israel killing 17, and Israeli tanks raiding Ramallah in response. Yet here in Haifa’s Wadi neighborhood, a romance is blooming between a beautiful Arab woman named Huda (Khawlha Hag-Debsy) and her upstairs neighbor, a Russian-Jewish trumpeter named Alex (Alexander Senderovich). The tone is mostly comic as Huda and Alex pursue their romance in the midst of mildly disapproving Arab and Jewish parents and relatives. There’s a subplot involving a more acceptable romance between Huda’s younger sister and her Arab suitor, and there’s more good will spread around between Arab and Jew than seems credible in view of the latest headlines.

Yet the film won the Best Film Award at the Haifa International Film Festival and the 2001 Israel Academy Film Awards for Best Drama, which suggests that, in some circles at least, an Arab-Jewish romance is still considered neither pure fantasy nor dire sacrilege. It’s safe to assume that most if not all Israeli filmmakers are considerably to the left of Ariel Sharon. It’s that way in most countries, including the United States. Still, A Trumpet in the Wadi is told from the point of view of an Arab family, and there are nervy mentions of Arab “collaborators” and Israeli repression. All this takes place, of course, within Israel itself, and therefore does not approach the Palestinian problem directly.

The characters are remarkably buoyant under the circumstances, and there’s a naturalness in their intermingling that couldn’t be entirely faked for the sake of a movie. The old question thus reappears: Can love conquer all? Having seen A Trumpet in the Wadi , I’m less sure that it can’t. The grace and charm of the performers has much to do with my conversion to optimism on the chance of eventual peace in this tormented region.