Monday, November 22, 2010

Brighton Rock (1947)

Besides being a gripping, towering example of film noir, Brighton Rock (1947) has an example of something relatively rare: perfect casting of its lead actor. Richard Attenborough is so ideally suited to the role of Pinkie Brown, that it's almost hard to believe such a pairing could be achieved. Attenborough is not only a brilliant actor, he has exactly right look for this prematurely hardened boy-man created by Graham Greene in his brilliant novel of the same name. He's young, appears not quite old enough to be wearing the "grown up" suit he sports throughout the film, with a boyish face that conveys a calculated innocence when required, or the nearly soul-less malevolence at the heart of his character. I say "nearly soul-less" because Pinkie believes in the soul. He's one of Greene's Roman Catholic characters, who is sure there is a hell and heaven. Pinkie does terrible things in this story, and he considers himself already condemned, destined for hell. Watching, and reading "Brighton Rock", we witness Pinkie's fall from a position of power that has always been precarious, and this fall has a fatalistic trajectory that is the essence of Film Noir.

The film's plot actually begins somewhat strangely. "Kolley Kibber", a fictional character, is coming to Brighton, according to newspapers and radio. This means that a number of special cards will be hidden around the city, each of them worth a monetary prize if found. The current representive of "Kolley Kibber" is a man called Fred Hale. When Pinkie's gang get a look at Fred's image in the paper, the trouble starts. As it turns out, Fred is an old enemy, on whom Pinkie has long wanted revenge. He sends a couple of his men after Fred in the crowded Brighton summer afternoon. What Pinkie doesn't know at the time is that Fred has made the acquaintance of Ida Arnold, a well-liked traveling performer in Brighton for several days. Ida takes a liking to Fred after he buys her a drink, and she doesn't forget him. Later, she runs into Fred who is in flight from Pinkie's deadly henchmen. After an exhilarating chase sequence, he disappears on her and Ida becomes obsessed with finding out exactly what happened. At this point Ida and Pinkie are firmly established in the viewer's mind as opposing forces of good and evil.

Pinkie's position as crime boss in Brighton (at the time a tawdry resort city on England's southern coast) is precarious because he commands a troop of unstable and untrustworthy types, and because he himself is unstable and suffers from hubris: he's too self-confident and not truly smart about his methods. Another reason he is not as firmly established in Brighton as he'd like to be is Colleoni, the older crime boss, who truly runs Brighton's underworld. Pinkie is little more than a pawn in Colleoni's game. In a key scene, Colleoni offers to take Pinkie into his own fold, a gesture towards co-operation. Pinkie's excessive self-confidence drives him further into opposition to the older man, and when the local police tell him get out of Brighton, he's even more certain he must establish his authority.

A bungled attempt to cover up the murder of Fred requires Pinkie to eliminate one of his own men, the elderly Spicer. This operation -a gesture on the part of Colleoni- too is bungled in one of the film's memorable scenes: Colleoni's thugs close in on Spicer in broad daylight, but Pinkie himself gets caught in the melee and receives a prominent scar on his cheek. In the meantime, Pinkie has met Rose, a waitress who is a potential material witness in the murder of Fred. She, too, must be elimated. But Pinkie does not dare to kill her outright. When poor Spicer turns up still alive, having survived the gang assault, Pinkie impulsively murders him in the presence of two of his men (a grim scene, remarkable for its evocation of the power of corruption). Rose, in the meantime, has been tracked down by Ida and she now knows of Pinkie's reputation and misdeeds. The naive, innocent girl refuses to give up on Pinkie and cherishes an as yet unplayed disc recording he has made at her request, telling her of his true feelings. Ida has gradually been piecing together Pinkie's activities and has connected him not only to Fred's murder, but to that of Spicer as well. In attempt to protect himself, Pinkie blackmails a corrupt lawyer, Prewitt, and proposes marriage to Rose so that she will not be able to testify against him in court, should the time come. But Pinkie's machinations are not working out: one of his men, Cubitt, leaves town and another, Dallow, will soon turn against him. As Ida, and now the police, close in, Pinkie convinces Rose to join him in what he calls a "suicide pax", misreading "pact" for the Latin word for peace. His intention is for Rose to shoot herself first, leaving him innocent of her suicide. In the end, Rose, a Catholic herself, does not pull the trigger, but tosses Pinkie's gun into the ocean. The desperate, panicked Pinkie backs into a pier railing and falls to his death. The film's final scene has a nun utter to Rose one of Greene's most enigmatic and haunting lines:
"You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."
Convinced he really loved her, Rose goes to play the disc he had made and scratched in an attempt to destroy it. Now the record skips at the line
"What you want me to say is 'I love you'... 'I love you...'I love you'."
Rose is left to believe what she wishes about her dear Pinkie.

Brighton Rock is a very strong entry in the film noir canon, and one of most exemplary in the British Noir category. It's a superb adaptation of the source novel, with mostly minor changes (Rose's final moment with the record and Pinkie's demise were altered for the film). Besides the perfect casting of Richard Attenborough, the rest of the player are brilliant. A particular standout is Hermione Baddeley as Ida. It's almost hard to believe she's not really this hard-headed woman, consumed by a passion to see justice done. Wylie Watson is unforgettable as the doomed Spicer, a classic "damned" character of film noir, his life reduced to simple concerns and a wish to retire, but too enmeshed in Pinkie's world to be allowed to escape. Very impressive in addition are Harcourt Williams as the fallen Prewitt and Carol Marsh as Rose. Further capable and welcome support comes from stalwarts William Hartnell (Dallow) and Nigel Stock (Cubitt).

The film is shot in a brooding, often claustrophobic style by Harry Waxman. Through Waxman's eye, the carnival atmosphere of Brighton takes on a sinister quality as background for this story. A few scenes use German expressionist camera and lighting techniques to heighten the drama (the murder of Spicer is a prime example). A screenplay by Graham Greene himself and famed playwright Terence Rattigan, means top drawer dialog and plotting. The music score by Hans May is not particularly memorable, with a main title that is harsh on the ears, but it supports the action well enough throughout. John Boulting's direction is so strong, yet unmarked by mannerism, we could wish he made more than this single, brilliant example of film noir.

editor's note: spoilers in the video below:

Written by Jay M.


  1. Looks excellent, but it seems Netflix doesn't have it.

  2. Not on Region 1 DVD yet, Criterion should pick it up....if you get a region free player you can get the UK DVD

  3. I live about 30 miles from Brighton and it has always been a fascinating place. It is currently enjoying a trendy and fashionable resurrection and many celebrities are choosing to live there. However, it has always had a 'seedy' underbelly which is in stark contrast to the regency splendour of much of the architecture. 'Brighton Rock' portrays this side of the town brilliantly and although there have been many changes, the old town is still recognisable from this movie.

  4. amazon has it on streaming, but netflix acts like it doesn't even exist!

    Here's the link for the amazon stream:


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