Brighton Rock (1947)

When it’s on: Friday, 6 July (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

A bit of a rush job for this one, I’m afraid, as I had to concentrate on writing a job application (love new jobs, hate the application process) and risked running out of time. It’s doubly a shame because today’s entry is so good, the Boulting Brothers’ 1947 production of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

It’s a film I’ve watched many times, having also worked my way through the book on a number of occasions. Though the former is hardly obscure, it seems to fall off the radar where British noir is concerned, though in fairness the list stops after anything made by Carol Reed. Yet this is pure noir. It was released at absolutely the right time, capturing the cynical, post-War mood of a world waking up to the reality that it wasn’t filled with heroes, just people making choices and often the wrong ones. Such a person is Rose Brown (Carol Marsh), the naive young waitress who, through vicious circumstance, winds up marrying teenage mobster, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough). It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Pinkie’s already proved to be a psychopath, utterly insensitive to human life, yet through the most rose-tinted (sorry) glasses and the triumph of hope over reason, the girl convinces herself that she’s found true love.

As for Attenborough, he’s riveting from his first appearance in Brighton Rock, which just happens to be a shot of his hands playing with and tightening a yarn of string menacingly. It’s nearly impossible to square the genial old luvvy of his later years with the monster he plays here. Attenborough makes the character achieve ever deeper levels of malice in the way his face barely seems to move. He’s a mask, similarly hiding the thoughts going on in that dark recess of a skull. And capable of such awfulness. One of the film’s scariest scenes has doomed Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley) board a ghost train in his attempt to escape Pinkie’s gang. He sits next to a boy waiting for his girlfriend, but then the camera moves away, and when it returns the boy has been replaced with the impassive Pinkie. Hale’s dead, and he – and, for that matter, we – knows it.

Brighton Rock is a tale of the town’s back alleys during the years between the World Wars. While visitors make the best of the pier and seaside attractions, a whole underbelly of crime take place within the shadows, and it’s here that Pinkie’s gang operates. Greene wrote the novel after spending long enough in Brighton to realise, simply from reading his local newspapers, what was happening from the number of reports concerning knife fights between rival crews. Pinkie’s gang, its leader aside, seem quite a jovial lot, with William Hartnell as a worldly Dallow featuring strongly. Aligned against them is local salt of the earth type, Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), who spends long enough with Hale to realise his disappearance is worth investigating. The trail leads her to Rose, who can implicate the gang in the murder, which forces Pinkie to marry her and turns Ida’s snooping into a moral quest to save the waitress. Also worth watching is Harry Ross as Pinkie’s crooked lawyer; his revelation to Ida of his past idealism and hopes tells us everything we need to know about the corruption at the film’s heart.

With a number of frightening, sinister touches (the disorientating ghost train ride) to look out for, a magnetic turn from Attenborough, and viewers’ sympathies ever with Rose, Brighton Rock is a fine piece of work, and it effortlessly outdoes the 2010 update in terms of quality and effect. At first glance, it’s possible to believe the film’s ending stops short of replicating the full horror of the book’s final reveal (Rose playing a record of Pinkie’s voice, in which he reveals his true feelings about her), but it’s a false hope. The record’s scratched in such a way that Pinkie saying ‘I love you’ is repeated over and over, and the camera focuses on a crucifix to imply divine intervention in sparing Rose’s feelings. And yet everyone apart from the girl knows his true nature; you end up hoping she moves the needle over the scratch and gets her wake-up call…

Brighton Rock: ****

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