Brighton Rock (1947)
” Graham Greene’s Shocking Thriller of the RAZOR GANGS!”
Director: John Boulting
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell
Synopsis: In 1940s Brighton, England, the vicious criminal Pinkie Brown is the leader of his small-time gang. After Brown murders a rival, he finds an alibi through a waitress, Rose, whom he promises to marry in return for her corroboration.
Brighton Rock was a movie unlike any other that had been produced in Britain up to 1947. Scripted by Graham Greene from his 1930s novel, it opens with a disclaimer that the gangs it depicts were in operation during the inter-war years and are no more, although there were probably few that believed such was the case. Crime flourished in the austere post-war years, and the racetrack at Brighton proved a fertile breeding ground for protection racketeering well into the 1960s (and possibly beyond). Although little effort appears to have been made to recreate the mid-1930s era for Brighton Rock, in all probability that disclaimer was a sop to Brighton’s Borough Council, who had already refused permission for the racetrack scenes to be filmed on location.
While holidaymakers frolic on the Brighton seafront, warring gangs roam the town’s underbelly, vying for control of its lucrative protection racket. One of these gangs is led by Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough — All Night Long), an amoral 17-year-old, who has assumed control following the murder of Kite, their former leader. Pinkie believes that Kite was killed by a rival gang who suspected him of talking to journalist Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), so when he learns that Hale is back in town he orders his gang to track him down. Hale, who is all too aware that Pinkie’s gang are after him, briefly makes the acquaintance of the blowsy but kind-hearted Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), and when Pinkie finally succeeds in murdering Hale it is Ida’s dogged pursuit of the truth that eventually does for him.
Hale was in Brighton on a promotional jaunt in which holidaymakers were invited to approach and identify him in return for a fiver. He would also leave calling cards in certain locations which could be handed in for a cash prize by those who found them. Pinkie has his men leave a few of these cards around in order to establish an alibi, but when he learns that Spicer (Wylie Watson — The 39 Steps), the oldest member of his gang, has left one at a popular sea-front cafÃ©, he fears that someone might have seen the old man plant the card and goes to retrieve it. However, it has already been found by 17-year-old Rose (Carol Marsh), an innocent and trusting young girl with whom Pinkie becomes romantically involved for no other reason than to ensure she doesn’t go to the police.
Brighton Rock is something of a throwback to the Warners’ gangster flicks of the 1930s — it was even retitled Young Scarface in the States — but, unlike those movies, it does nothing to glamorise those involved in crime — at least, not Pinky and his gang. While rival gangster Colleoni (Charles Goldner) might wear dinner suits and operate out of a plush hotel, Pinkie and his boys spend most of their time in a crummy boarding house run by a blind man and his slatternly wife. They wear clothes that are more garish than sharp and, apart from Pinkie, who is portrayed as a cold-blooded emotionless killer, they appear to have little ambition. And although Pinkie possesses the self-composure of a fearless bully — he never blinks, never moves his head when speaking — deep down he’s a coward whose veneer of calmness is paper-thin.
Richard Attenborough’s performance is remarkable, and a far remove from the luvvie image of his later years. Given how often that trick of never blinking and remaining preternaturally still while speaking has been used by so many who’ve been called upon to play dangerous psychopaths ever since — and it’s difficult to think of anyone using it before Attenborough — it’s easy to overlook just how good he is, and how influential his portrayal of Pinkie Brown has been on later movies. His performance is complemented by equally strong performances from an accomplished supporting cast. Hermione Baddeley manages to keep the blowsy character of Ida Arnold from growing annoying, and she remains sympathetic even while retaining that aura of cheapness about her; a young William Hartnell also manages to inject some warmth into a cheap gangster who, while capable of acts of cruelty, is not so far beyond redemption that he lacks any human warmth, and stage actor Harcourt Williams delivers the eccentric lines of his crooked, semi-alcoholic solicitor with obvious relish.
Attenborough is aided in his portrayal by the complex nature of his character as written by Greene. We learn nothing of Pinkie’s past, of why he has become the way he is, but whatever his history, it has coloured his perception of the human race and of the religion it practices. Religion offers no warmth or salvation for Pinkie, but only ‘hell, damnation and torment’. His view is the direct opposite of Rose’s simple faith, and he operates purely on an instinctual level, motivated purely by a keen sense of self-preservation which, criminal activities excepted, leads him to live an ironically puritanical lifestyle. But, of course, it’s all bravado, painstakingly constructed to disguise the frightened child at his core.
The film’s famous ending, which suggests the saving of Rose’s soul, was one that was forced upon Greene by the fact that the BBFC would never permit the ending from the book to remain. It’s a clever, memorable change — but it’s also something of a cheat. After all, who amongst us wouldn’t push the needle past that scratch on the record to hear what other messages of love he had for her? Certainly, Rose wouldn’t, but I think the purity of her faith would result in her interpreting the way Pinkie repeats the same words over and over as a divine intervention designed to prove the existence of a God’s love and protection which Pinkie roundly rejected.
(Reviewed 16th February 2014)