“People don’t change. It’s like those sticks of rock, bite one all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.”
24 years before he was quietly murdering women inside his flat at 10 Rillington Place, Richard Attenborough came up hard on the seedy boardwalks of Brighton Rock. Based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name, Brighton Rock is considered by many to be the exemplary British noir. I haven’t seen nearly enough of the Brits’ output during the classic noir period to comment on that, but I can say that Brighton Rock is one powerful portrait of evil and Catholic anguish. Not to mention that Attenborough’s performance as adolescent psycho Pinkie Brown will make your knickers quake.
Before seeing 10 Rillington Place, my only image of Attenborough was as John Hammond, the grandfatherly proprietor of Jurassic Park. If his chilling performance in Rillington blew that image of the friendly old timer out of the water, his role as Pinkie Brown effectively kicked all of Hammond’s teeth out. He was only about 23 at the time of Brighton Rock, a bit older than the 17-year-old he was playing, but holy shit was it perfect casting. His choirboy looks and man-child demeanor mask one of the coldest hearts I’ve ever witnessed on film.
Pinkie is the pseudo-leader of a small band of racketeers working the piers of Brighton, a small resort city on England’s southern coast. The beach chairs and carnival rides conceal a much seedier side of the tourist hot spot, where come dark the boarding houses and beer halls run over with a litany of low-lifes. A little while back Pinkie and his gang were led by another man, who was killed by some guy named Fred Hale. When the boys catch wind that Hale is back in Brighton for the day, they waste no time tracking him down and snuffing him out.
Their pursuit of Hale leads to a spectacular chase scene through the boardwalk amusements of Brighton, swollen with tourists and weekend beach-goers. The chase concludes in a house of horrors, where Hale unknowingly rides next to Pinkie in a cute little swan boat. The faces of demons and other assorted monsters course by during the ride – appropriately mirroring Pinkie’s further descent into damnation. See, Pinkie is a Catholic, one who believes strongly in the eternal fires and brimstone of hell. He also believes that’s where he’s heading when he dies. Scratch that, he’s certain that’s his final destination. This afterlife assurance is where Pinkie draws the confidence from that enables him to take control of his gang. To put it plainly, Pinkie is scary because he doesn’t give a fuck.
But like everybody else ever guilty of hubris ever in fiction, Pinkie’s confidence leads to his downfall. His collapse doesn’t occur in one big climactic dive bomb though (technically it does, but, shut up). Pinkie’s ruin occurs gradually, as he continuously attempts to establish himself as the leading criminal in Brighton, even though he’s far from it. The town’s larcenous activities are run by Colleoni, a wealthy Italian crime boss. When Colleoni extends a hand to Pinkie, offering him into the fold, he slaps it away. Even when the police chief advises Pinkie to leave town in the wake of Hale’s disappearance, he scoffs.
Hale’s body may have vanished without a trace courtesy of Pinkie, but a traveling singer named Ida (Hermione Baddeley) suspects foul play. If Pinkie is the personification of evil in Brighton Rock, Ida, with all of her avenging characteristics, is the embodiment of good. Although she only met Hale once, that doesn’t stop her from turning Brighton upside down in pursuit of his killer. With no help from the police at all, this big beautiful woman with a deafening laugh manages to put the finger on Pinkie (no pun intended).
While he manages to dodge Ida’s efforts to confront him, she easily corners Pinkie’s “love” interest, Rose (Carol Marsh). Having witnessed a crucial bungle during the Hale murder, she’s the one girl who could send Pinkie to the gallows. He cunningly seduces her (in a creepy, menacing Pinkie way) and convinces her to a suicide-pact if the police are to ever catch him. Pinkie has no intention of pulling the trigger on himself, of course, but he’s willing to coerce this innocent girl into killing herself in the name of love. Their relationship is a highly disturbing one.
At one point Ida makes a profound speech (part of which is quoted at the beginning of this review) about how people can’t change. Rose, however, is the one person in Brighton Rock with the capability of transforming her life for the better. During the climactic scene on the boardwalk, when Pinkie and Rose are cornered by the police and Pinkie’s own gang, she does make a wise decision – but for the wrong reasons. The moralities at play during this film are strongly black and white – with Pinkie at one pole and Ida at the other. Caught in the middle is poor, naive Rose.
Director John Boulting never worked in noir again, which is a damn shame. At least he made this one genre classic. The camerawork by Harry Waxman heightens the brooding atmosphere with nice traces of the German expressionistic style oh-so popular in America at the time. One scene in particular stand out as a perfect example of how noir can translate its fatalistic themes strictly through visuals:
Pinkie (who has recently received a prominent slash on his cheek courtesy of Colleoni’s thugs) kills off the eldest member of the gang in their boarding house by pushing him over a railing. The scene is filmed with an intense feeling of claustrophobia – there’s absolutely no escape from the choking shadows. As the man tumbles to the first floor, his body breaks a hanging gas lamp. Flames spit out of the lamp, mimicking the pits of hell Pinkie knows he’s destined for. It’s an impossibly grim scene. Besides the a small, perverse smirk, he shows no emotion while murdering this poor old bastard. Pinkie may be heading for eternal damnation, but he’s taking some blokes with him.
I’m bummed it took me so long to catch Brighton Rock. But now that I’ve had, it’s like a new standard for my noir viewing has been set. Especially post-war noir. The plot may be simple, but Attenborough’s incredible performance and the heavy Catholic overtones make Brighton Rock a towering portrait of crime and doom.
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