CAST: Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, Saffron Burrows, Kenneth Cranham, Jamie Foreman, Razaaq Adoti, Doug Allan

DIRECTOR: Paul McGuigan

Rarely have greed and bloodlust been delineated with such riveting skill as in this study of London's slimy underworld. Set mostly in 1968 and a little in the late nineties, Johnny Ferguson's intricate, incisive screenplay explores the twisted relationship between Freddie Mays, a reigning ganglord (David Thewlis), and his covetous, psychopathic disciple known only as Gangster (played by both the youthful Paul Bettany and veteran Malcolm McDowell). In the beginning, there is nothing that Gangster--a street kid without polish or the slightest inclination toward decency--would not do for his slick, power-wielding mentor. In the end, there is nothing that he would not do to him.

The tense, complex drama--directed by newcomer Paul McGuigan, a born storyteller with an extraordinary visual sense and a gift for precisely the right sick touch at precisely the right time--does in fact begin at the end. Gangster, now the man to reckon with on the streets and in the backrooms of London's drug-infested, politically corrupt East End, goes into a crazed spin when told that Freddie has been released from the slammer, after having served 30 years for a murder actually committed by Gangster himself. Suddenly, seamlessly, the camera takes us back to a time when Gangster was young and hungry and eager to learn from Freddie all the ways to hone his talent for evil. And then we're in forward motion again, traveling (with shattering stop-offs) to our final destination--a high-noon moment played out between former friends in the noir of the London night.

A pretty picture this is not. It's hard to imagine a sequence more unnerving than the one in which Gangster, beginning to feel the thrill of omnipotence, savagely murders a rival thug, strips to his underwear so as not to soil a suit so elegant that even Freddie might covet it, and--with the enthusiasm of a brand-new butcher--carves his enemy's body into chunks. As Malcolm McDowell himself has said, "This is not a Guy Ritchie film. It's a real look at the dirty underside, and anybody who's squeamish just shouldn't see it."

If you number yourself among the squeamish, you'll be missing McDowell's finest, most daring performance since "A Clockwork Orange," as well as an incendiary, star-making turn by Paul Bettany. The entire cast, from David Thewlis as the out-of-luck Freddie to Saffron Burrows as the sad loser he tries to turn into a winner, is first-rate. "Gangster No. 1" may not turn out to be "Movie No. 1" of the year, but I don't see how it can miss making a lot of 10 Best lists.