Another skilful depiction of a psychopath in film is given by Paul Bettany and Malcolm McDowell in British crime thriller Gangster No 1 from 2000. This portrayal undoubtedly leans towards the extreme end of the psychopathy spectrum, with violence and sadism being a crucial part of the character in question.
The film follows the life on a low level London Gangster from the 1960s, with Paul Bettany playing the young version, known only as “Gangster”, and Malcolm McDowell playing the older version of the same man in middle age, known as “Gangster 55”. David Thewlis plays Freddie Mays, the initial head of the small time crime operation who Gangster envies and then displaces to take over his operation.
Gangster can see the power and respect Freddie Mays has and wants it for himself. He initially observes and learns but then sets up Freddie to be framed for a murder, which then leaves him free to take over his underworld business for himself.
The film then tracks the young Gangster through the rest of his life from then on, with Malcom McDowell taking over the performances for the older Gangster now in middle age, ensconced as the leader of what used to be Freddie’s operation but seemingly more openly unhinged and psychotic then his younger self.
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A Pure Psychopath
Bettany portrays in the young gangster a psychopath who is not as well socialized or concealed as some of them learn to be. He is more obviously disturbed and sadistic, feared but not liked. With Gangster there is no superficial glib charm or ability to chit chat. There is not even any pretense of being a normal person. Bettany plays him as a pure unfiltered psychopath and pure evil, and does so brilliantly.
Bettany manages to filter out all aspects of humanity and empathy from the performance, leaving only a sadistic, cold nastiness. Gangster doesn’t say much initially; he just watches, observes and learns from others in the crime world. He almost comes into the film as a tabula rasa or blank slate; completely soulless and without a center, just a collection of whatever behaviours and habits he picks up along the way.
McDowell’s portrayal of the older gangster is not so much violent anymore, just more mentally unhinged and more on the psychotic end of the spectrum. He is often a rambling incoherent mess at times; the people around him do not like him but fear and therefore tolerate him. He has what he wanted externally but still has nothing internally.
It is Bettany’s performance as the young Gangster which takes up most of the screen time and is the most edgy and intense. He holds a fascination with David Thewlis’ Freddie character, but only because he wants what he has. Freddie represents everything he is not.
Freddie is liked and respected. People look up to him. He occasionally uses violence to make a point, but is not sadistic and does not enjoy violence for it’s own sake. It is used sparingly and as a means to an end. He has the style, the smart suits, the social skills, the charm and the attractive girlfriend in Karen (Saffron Burrows), who Gangster takes an immediate dislike to.
By contrast, Gangster is a completely closed off person, unpleasant and rude socially. He cannot hold a friendly conversation in the way Freddie can and Bettany portrays the lack of human quality that so many psychopaths have very well. With him though there is no “Mask of Sanity” to pretend his is normal; he just is openly unpleasant and evil and makes no attempts to hide it.
He is also a sadistic and violent person, taking pleasure out of hurting people just for it’s own sake. This aspect is drawn out in a lengthy torture scene where Bettany brilliantly portrays the lack of empathy which means psychopaths will simply not stop because without this emotional brake check there are no limits to what they will do to others. They just keep going until they are bored.
Envy and Happiness
Gangster No 1 is written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who also wrote Sexy Beast, one of the other films we review in the psychopaths in film series. One of themes which shows up in this film as well as Sexy Beast, is the issue of envy and happy people versus unhappy people, with the psychopaths among us being the unhappy ones who want to snuff out the happiness of others.
In this film we see very early that Gangster is fascinated by Freddie. He sees his styles, his class, his popularity, his respect and he wants it. Being a soulless person himself he can’t actually have these qualities. Freddie for his part takes him under his wing, treating him almost as a trainee in the crime world.
Gangster however betrays Freddie by not passing on information about a hit planned for him. He then observes the hit without intervening and leaves Freddie and Karen for dead, taking out his own boss and also sadistically murdering his competition on the same night. From then on he takes over what was Freddie’s crime business and has the power over others that he wanted.
No one however likes Gangster in the way they liked Freddie; they only fear him because they can see there is something not right with him. In one scene, we see him throw a body off a building onto the waiting car of some accomplices. “Fucking animal” is all that one of them has to say. The rest of them are criminals but don’t take a sadistic pleasure out of hurting people like Gangster does.
Freddie meanwhile has been away in prison for 30 years because of being set up by Gangster, and once out we see him meet with the older Gangster 55, now played by Malcolm McDowell. Despite losing everything he is happy and at peace with himself, not interested in being the gangster he once was. He doesn’t have his ego invested in the “Freddie Mays” image of who he used to be.
Gangster has had everything he wanted in terms of the money and power for the 30 years Freddie has been locked away, yet still has nothing inside. In the typical way of a psychopath, he thought he could just “download” what Freddie had by getting rid of him and taking his place. In reality nothing changed for him internally because he doesn’t have (and can never have) any of the character traits or qualities of Freddie.
When he sees Freddie we see a strange kind of attempt to make some kind of recompense by Gangster, where he offers him money and other things to try and win his favor again. It is the closest he can get to saying sorry but Freddie doesn’t care about this world anymore and even disparages who he used to be, which enrages Gangster since this is also disparaging what he has always wanted to be himself.
The film then presents the same juxtaposition that Sexy Beast did, where we see happy, contented people not needing money or power over others versus miserable, psychopathic people who are disciples of power and money, thinking it will lead them to happiness when it won’t.
We see the inherent destructive envy in these types, where they want to have what someone else has by taking it away from them rather than emulating them, and they want to destroy the happiness they can see in the life of another because they cannot have this for themselves inside.
Gangster has the shallow belief, typical of psychopaths, that if he just takes Freddie’s spot and sits in his seat, then he can be the same as Freddie, commanding the same respect and admiration. He cannot see that there is more to it than that and being liked and respected requires displaying certain traits and qualities as a person that he can never have being a psychopath.
It is a complete dead end game for him right from the start but he can’t see it. The final scene in the film can be read as a realization on his part that his entire existence has been pointless and everything he did has ultimately been for nothing, no matter how much money or power he has.
Sexy Beast and 44 Inch Chest are also written by the same writers – Louis Mellis and David Scinto. See here for our review of Sexy Beast