John Boulting, 1947
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh
"You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” -Graham Green
At Brighton’s race track, in seaside resort in England, a teenager named Pinkie takes over a small gang after the leader is killed. Partly, this is due to a story written by a local reporter, Fred, so Pinke and some of his men take care of Fred, killing him at the local carnival. He gets one of his men, Spicer, to make sure there is no evidence that the gang was responsible — the police think it was actually a heart attack — but Spicer blunders this and leaves behind a clue that is found by an innocent young waitress, Rose. Pinkie intimidates Rose, but she also falls in love with him. He decides to marry her so that she’ll never be able to testify against him, but he is foiled by Ida, a performer in a touring troupe. Briefly friends with Fred before his death, Ida is determined to get to the bottom of things and follows Pinkie’s trail even though the police ignore her.
With a script by acclaimed British novelist Graham Greene — based on his own novel — and Terence Rattigan (The Prince and the Showgirl, The Browning Version), this is certainly one of the best adaptations of Greene’s works. Adaptations of his novels include such classic thrillers as The Third Man, The Ministry of Fear, The End of the Affair, The Fallen Idol, and more, but Brighton Rock is perhaps the most faithful of all these, changing relatively little of Greene’s plot (except the ending, thanks to studio interference). It’s also one of the finest instances of British film noir, blending elements of the gangster film popularized in the U.S. in the ‘30s with a German expressionist influence and an undeniably British sensibility.
Along with such filmmaking teams as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as the Archers, and Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the Boulting Brothers are a staple of British cinema. Twins John and Roy traded off the roles of director and producer, though John served as director here. His work is understated, but excellent, and it’s a shame they didn’t make any further noir-styled efforts. Thanks to his talents and some wonderful cinematography from the skilled Harry Waxman (The Wicker Man, The Day the Earth Caught Fire), the Brighton location becomes a character of its own. Known as a popular real-life vacation spot, the carnival and resort itself — a seaside paradise — is here depicted as a hell or at best a purgatory for many of its citizens.
Brighton’s depiction of ease and luxury hides a thin veneer of crime, filth, despair, and violence packed into the carnival, race track, cheap boardinghouses, dark alleyways, and bars. Greene’s novel was apparently based on real gangs that plagued the area between the two world wars and there is the same sense of poverty, amorality, and desperation found in Weimar-era narratives. In Brighton Rock, this revolves around Pinkie, one of Britain’s best villains. The late, great Richard Attenborough was fresh off reprising his stage role as Pinkie and is perfectly cast here, a combination of cherubic and diabolic traits. The Catholic Pinkie believes seriously in supernatural forces. He’s anxious and neurotic, a convincing face of evil despite the fact that he’s just a teenager.
The crux of the plot revolves around his neuroses coming down hard on the gang. Though Pinkie is able to kill Fred — a chilling scene set in the carnival fun house — he is gripped by paranoia that someone will discover his crime, even though the police have immediately closed the investigation as death due to a heart attack. It is perhaps a secret, hidden guilt that causes Pinkie to obsessively worry about evidence, which he has his followers track down and stamp out for no logical reason. His marriage to Rose seems to be a way to keep her close without admitting that he has feelings for her — it’s possibly these feelings of love within himself that Pinkie hates, rather than Rose herself. It is also likely that Rose — young and Catholic, like himself — is a living reminder of his guilt, his act of murder. He could easily murder her too, a far simpler task than marrying her to keep her quiet, but he chooses to keep her close.
Aside from Attenborough’s incredible performance, there are some great side roles. Hermione Baddeley is wonderful as the stubborn Ida, a frumpy, somewhat annoying performer who is inexplicably desperate to discover Fred’s murderer. This is presumably because of his one act of kindness towards her — an act fueled sheerly by desperation — which adds to the pathos of her character and the grim tone of the film. Future first Doctor Who William Hartnell is quite dashing as Dallow, while Carol Marsh (Horror of Dracula) is lovely as Rose.
Brighton Rock is available on Blu-ray and comes with the highest recommendation. Though the ending was forced on Boulting by the studio, I think it sums up the overall air of the film — incredibly cynical — and shows that hope is a lie, optimism and faith are always misplaced, and the Catholic way of looking at the world is often strange and cruel.