Brighton Rock (1947) Graham Greene’s Seedy Side of England

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Brighton Rock, based on a Graham Green novel from 1938, opens with a disclaimer about the proceeding content. Great pains are made to differentiate the place depicted within the frames of the film — set before WWII — and Brighton circa 1947. The only reason such a note would be necessary is the fact this picture was preparing to show an unflattering side of the sea town (and also the picture used hidden cameras to film on-location). Before we have even begun, we already have a weird mixture of faux-reality with an authentic period piece. It’s certainly not a false assessment to make.

A handsome, fresh-faced lad with piercing eyes, Richard Attenborough, plays Pinkie Brown, a hoodlum to the nth degree. In fact, the actor’s performance is augmented by his obvious youth. It gives the sense of a young upstart who grew up to be tough due to his environment. He knows no other life, no other person except himself. One can only marvel at Attenborough originating the role three years prior on the stage.

The most obvious point of action begins with some blokes chasing a man named Fred (Alan Wheatley) around, running him ragged in relentless pursuit. Lady of Shanghai (1947) has the hall of mirrors. Woman on The Run (1950) has a roller coaster. Strangers on a Train (1951) has its Tunnel of Love and a haywire carousel. Brighton Rock can ably join the pantheon of morbid cinematic funhouse attractions with its own addition. The Palace Pier might be a fine place for jocularity, but it also serves as a fitting locale for murder.

The solitary person who gives a tuppence at Fred’s disappearance is the gregarious local entertainer (Hermione Baddeley), who takes a shining to him for any number of reasons. Namely, he lends her money and gives her tips on the ponies. But bless her soul, she does try her darndest to get to the bottom of his case, even as the police have already wrapped it up neatly.

The film itself conjures up a gritty world worth exploring, with the blend of British backstreet authenticity and gangster drama. We get accustomed to beer halls, grungy flats, and seaside boardwalks. Part of the joy is seeing the world of 1940s England partially untouched, as it was at the time.

Maybe it’s subliminal, because of the relationship between Graham Greene and Carol Reed by way of The Third Man, but I cannot help seeing shades of Brighton Rock in Odd Man Out and vice versa. Certainly, their characters and situations are starkly different to go with the respective terrain of Brighton and Ireland. Still, you get the same brooding sense of fatalism and the destructive nature of such lifestyles upheld by these lowbrow criminal types.

Like all the finest, most complex gangster films, what we have is the dichotomy of a criminal’s life. In “business” they can be so ruthless, and yet there is still space for family and in the case of Pinkie, love. He is prepared to murder someone for double-crossing him in one moment, and then ready to go courting with his girl the next.

The impressionable girl in question is Rose (Carol Marsh). She is a waitress who unwittingly has information to incriminate Pinkie. So he promptly goes to work on her. Being a soft touch and seeing as he has a certain amount of charm, it’s easy enough to pull off. In her naivete, she’s easily taken with him and falls head over heels in love. Ready to do anything and everything to shield him. It’s just what he wants, another person to use.

Because to the very end, we must suspect he is only keeping her close because she knows too much. As much as we want to believe he might actually love her — and be redeemed to some extent — it’s pretty clear it never happens. He remains an incorrigible reprobate, who nevertheless believes in hell and damnation.

Reckoning, for him, comes first in the form of local kingpin Colleoni who is prepared to lean on the younger hood — he’s getting too big for his britches — the police know it too. But he’s a feisty devil, continually exerting his authority over his band of cronies, even as Ida continues poking around. A racetrack becomes a perfect locale for violent tumult. Although my favorite particular image is a picketer hoisting a big sign “The Wages of Sin is Death” whilst he chows away on a sandwich, there are more imminently menacing theatrics on hand.

The rope is running out for Pinkie and his psychotic little mind sees his one last chance as a double suicide killing so he might get away. We have a sense of what he’s about to do. The rain is pouring down. He and his girl take a brisk walk out to the pier. The events are heightened by this moral imperative where death by suicide is seen as the ultimate sin on some man-made gradient.

Her we have a callow young woman who will so willingly ruin her life and blindly follow a man she thinks truly loves her. Then, there’s a criminal beholden only to himself to the very end, but Attenborough goes out and makes sure we don’t forget him even when he’s left the picture. You can’t forget someone like that nor a performance of this sleazy magnitude.

He leaves behind the gramophone recording of his voice with a malicious note, but whether Pinkie’s own tamperings or a bit of fateful happenstance the record gets caught on the phrase I love you — with everything else conveniently left out. As the camera closes in on a crucifix — the ultimate symbol of sacrificial love —  it seems a very disconcerting thing to hear Pinkie’s words echoing against it.

The music trills to suggest this is meant to be a happy ending, and yet when I see that imagery and hear those words, they don’t mesh. They remind me that the very nature of human beings is often deceptive and cruel.

If God is supposed to be good and perfect, there can hardly be any relation between our imperfect attempts at love and his, if he is indeed perfect. So if we want to retain something, it seems imperative to latch onto the word hope — what the sister entreats Rose to latch onto even as she notes “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Graham Greene was himself an ardently religious man and even in the cynical worlds he often draws up, this hint at something else is striking. You must look upward at something greater or else take a dive into the nihilistic depths of despair. The outcomes of this picture allow for no other logical progression.

4/5 Stars

2 thoughts on “Brighton Rock (1947) Graham Greene’s Seedy Side of England

  1. Great account of a great movie — many thanks. As you say, the Attenborough performance is chillingly memorable. The remake’s not nearly as good but still worth a watch.

    The book’s worth a read too. If anything Pinkie’s even more disturbing there.

    Liked by 1 person

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