A maniac who wears his hat tilted to the side, Richard Attenborough’s teenage thug Pinkie Brown in the Boultings’ Brighton Rock brings to mind the signature Hollywood gangsters played by Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Richard Widmark. Pinkie’s a proud, impressively attired sociopath who holds a position of some power in the local syndicate. Though the story, based on a novel by the ever-cinematic Grahame Greene, occurs in the English coastal town of Brighton, the audience is assured that things could hardly be safer in the present day (1947). The criminal riffraf that sprung up between the wars was apparently swept away years earlier. Bring the wife and kids for a sunny holiday amid the former stomping grounds of lethal mob activity. Such concessions also allow for a setting faithful to Greene’s novel, published in 1938 and taking place during that decade.
Brighton Rock lets Attenborough have one of those starmaking parts akin to what Muni, Cagney and Widmark enjoyed except Pinkie is comparably restrained and less immediately volatile than the Hollywood gangsters we’ve seen. He’s just as dangerous certainly, but the violence is colder and even more unnerving. When the ill-fated Fred (Alan Wheatley) struggles to elude Pinkie, the latter becomes a psychotic grim reaper in the film’s most striking scene. The Boultings, John as director and Roy the producer, film a carnival ride like it’s a descent directly to Hell. Unforgiving blackness frames the faces of monsters, with the audience very much sitting alongside Pinkie and Fred. It’s a frightening sequence that plays especially well in a darkened cinema and might’ve been heightened even further had it been extended a little. Pinkie’s level of depravity, creepier because of his cool calm, is confirmed. The turn of events also allows the picture’s narrative to switch from the inevitable hunt of Fred to a stronger focus on Pinkie, including the aftermath of his action.
It’s here when he meets fellow teenager Rose (Carol Marsh), a waitress who becomes inadvertently involved in a cover-up. She’s the picture of innocence – young, pretty, virginal and naive. Rose believes Pinkie loves her and with her character the film rises to the level of tragedy, extending beyond simple gangster film conventions and edging more into noir territory. The viewer’s fascination with Pinkie is obvious. Attenborough, who’d earlier played the same role on the stage, is perfectly restrained in his characterization of such a forceful figure. Having Rose take to Pinkie, seemingly more from her own loneliness than his brand of persuasion, adds some sadness to both of them. It’s extremely difficult to feel any sympathy for Pinkie because of how cruel he is, age notwithstanding. However, Rose is so unconditionally loyal and blind to Pinkie’s horrors while still remaining an indelibly fragile bystander that we can’t actively wish her any harm. She sees Pinkie as a man who’s taken interest in her, not as the vicious criminal he is, and while it’s easy enough to want to shake her free of this fixation, there’s little doubt that she’s already begun her journey down that path.
Early on, the character of Fred manages some intense moments of desperation, playing on his status as essentially a caged animal with the cage encompassing his surroundings of Brighton, but he soon fades away, leaving three main figures in the film. Pinkie is the frightening lead, Rose contrasts his evilness, and we also have Ida (Hermione Baddeley) as a separate conscience. Some of the existing analysis on Brighton Rock, both book and film and including a recent piece in the New York Times that addressed other works by Greene, touches heavily on a Catholic underscore apparently present. Not being Catholic, I would struggle to make such a connection, but I do think that Rose’s inherent goodness makes for an interesting comparison to Ida’s middle-aged boozy floozy considering it’s the latter who goes out of her way to demand some justice for Fred. The one short exchange that directly references Catholicism occurs between Pinkie and Rose, and it finds the psychotic murderer admonishing atheism. Ironic, yes, but still not in any way supportive of that belief because of how dismissive it comes across, even in the jittery hands of someone like Pinkie.
Attenborough’s juvenile delinquent seems to be a wholesale endorsement of sin and the potential redemption embodied by Rose. At any point, Pinkie could give it all up and live a comfortable life with Rose. His extreme, violent insanity prevents any such thoughts ever crossing Pinkie’s mind. It’s not even a consideration, though. Never does he think maybe a life with Rose would be preferable to the small-time lording over of a race track and the various killings such a position requires. Only with Attenborough’s performance and Greene’s creation of this character could the viewer possibly extend any thought beyond the mere psychopath angle. This is clearly what he is, a totally unhinged purveyor of violence, and, yet, the fascination turns us inward into wondering why. No backstory is really given for Pinkie. He’s only seventeen but uncommonly skilled at being a psychotic. As Rose accepts him regardless of the strikes against, Ida could hardly be less charmed. Her motivation seems based purely within the framework of fiction.
She’s an unfulfilled stage performer who dresses in a clown costume to entertain mostly empty seats. For some reason, either created through oddity or convenience, Ida is determined to convince the police that Fred did not commit suicide and that he was actually murdered. Our amateur detective then zeroes in on some inconsistencies with Rose and, by extension, Pinkie. Ida seems to represent an unlikely good in this story pocked with evil at every turn. Given his murderous tendencies, Pinkie could’ve easily gotten rid of Ida. That he never does seems to indicate some sort of uneasy respect or fear. Perhaps he simply holds Ida as unimportant, but I don’t think so considering how fervently she’s trailed him from the onset of Fred’s death. The police, portrayed as lacking curiosity and competence, aren’t a problem for Pinkie so it’s really just Ida continuing any investigation.
While the Boultings contain all of this within a tight 86 minutes, Greene’s story still breathes the acrid air of Brighton to such a degree as to render the introductory disclaimer more patronizing than efficient. The unapologetic nastiness viciously drips from the film. The run that Greene was enjoying with his adaptations at this point was simply staggering, with This Gun for Hire, Ministry of Fear, and John Ford’s The Fugitive coming before and two Carol Reed masterpieces in The Fallen Idol and The Third Man following in consecutive years. What this says in terms of Graham Greene’s unique talent for writing stories which translated nicely into films hardly seems necessary to reiterate. Clearly, Greene was a master both at the original idea and the adaptation, with which he often personally blessed film versions of his work. Calling Brighton Rock another Graham Greene adaptation could sound like an dismissal, but, on the contrary, there are few more meaningful ways of summing it up. As Hollywood was introducing us to Tommy Udo and any number of bad, bad men, this British gangster film exercised a little more subtlety while maintaining an equal degree of downright unpleasantries.
Those curious to see Brighton Rock have a few options. It’s not yet available on DVD in R1, but a disc does exist in the UK for R2. I saw a screening of Rialto’s new print at Film Forum in Manhattan and one would hope that an edition from the Criterion Collection might be forthcoming. While no airings are currently scheduled, TCM has also shown the film in the past. With the presence of Rialto, my guess is that an edition in R1 is probably forthcoming in the next year or so. It’s really too good of a film to remain unreleased.