Brighton Rock Review
Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock is one of the writer’s best works – a thoroughly bitter and twisted little novel that never falters for a second in its dark subversion of the comfortable beliefs of the English working classes and Catholic teachings, nor descends into the hand-wringing moral and religious self-pitying dilemmas that now tend to date many of his other works. The Boulting Brothers brought the novel to the screen in 1947 with a screenplay by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan, that bravely retained much of original darkness and violence of the original story, if not its underlying bitterness.
One of Greene’s targets for subversion is the cheery picture postcard image of the British seaside resort, showing it as a playground for criminals, thugs and murderers. The impact of this is immediately lessened by a disclaimer at the start of the film that distances the post-war city of Brighton from the dark interwar years of the film’s setting, but other than that, Brighton Rock remains true to the rather nasty activities of Pinkie Brown and his gang, who carry out a protection racket in the town, carving up debtors and rivals with their cut-throat razors.
This is bad news for Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), a reporter who has been sent to Brighton on the Bank Holiday weekend by his newspaper, The Daily Messenger. As Kolly Kibber, Fred has to leave cards around the town for cash prizes, with a special 10 guinea reward for the first person who recognises and challenges him. Unfortunately, he is recognised by Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) and his gang of thugs as the Fred Hale whose article for the Messenger resulted in the death of their leader Kite. Fred seeks safety among the Bank Holiday crowds, striking up an acquaintance with Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), a kind-hearted, big-bosomed seaside entertainer who is fond of a drink or two and enjoys male company. Only briefly separated from Fred for a few moments, Pinky takes the opportunity to bump off the reporter, and get his men to continue distributing the newspaper prize cards in order to confuse the time of death and give themselves an alibi. Luckily for Pinkie, the police regard Fred’s death as accidental.
There are a few loose ends left open however, and the inexperienced but ruthless 17 year old Pinky, who has taken over the running of the gang since Kite’s death, means to clear them up by whatever means necessary. Spicer has unfortunately been spotted leaving one of Kolly Kibber’s cards in a tea-shop, so Pinky tries to get close to the young waitress, Rose, to find out what she knows. He’s also being harassed by Ida Arnold, who isn’t convinced by the police’s handling of the case and intends to do some investigation of her own. With other big time gangsters like Mr. Colleoni (Charles Goldner) moving in on their territory, Pinkie starts to feel the pressure on all sides and it only makes his actions even more ruthless and violent.
Inevitably, as in any adaptation of a great novel for the screen, a lot of the real substance of the original is lost, and that is sadly the case with Brighton Rock. On the surface, in the casting, in the storyline and in the pacing it can hardly be faulted, Boulting making superb use of Brighton locations to capture the essential English qualities of the setting, using strong, stark, noir-ish lighting in the seedy interiors of Pinkie’s mob’s house to emphasise the almost demonic qualities of the young thug. While Attenborough is magnificently impressive and convincing as the menacing Pinkie Brown, unfortunately, he doesn’t convey the contradiction of the twisted Catholicism that pushes him, and the young innocent Rose, towards unspeakable actions. There may be some difficulty in Carol Marsh’s representation as the innocent child Rose, but the look on her face as Pinkie records his poisonous message to her is priceless, giving the scene the exact right note of cruelty and perversity (an effect that is however undermined in the final shot of the film). As Ida Arnold however, Hermione Baddeley could not be more perfect. Ida Arnold represents the cheery English optimism – the counterpoint of the Catholic guilt complex - that sticks to familiar patterns and locations like the British seaside resort of Brighton, putting faith and moral certitude in the comfortable little lies of well-worn phrases and maxims – “broken hearts always mend”, “lucky to be alive at all” – that inoculate them from the bitter realities of the world. Her free and easy attitude towards sex - “it’s only a bit of fun” - is the opposite of Pinkie’s distaste for the sexual act. If none of this is directly depicted in the screen version of the story (and it is a serious loss in the case of building a complex portrait of the character of Pinkie), Baddeley is at least able to convey it in her very tone and in every gesture.
Brighton Rock presents these two contradictory elements superbly as they run up against each other, and the fact that neither of them are convincing worldviews gives the film a deep unrelentingly dark and bleak outlook throughout, never flinching for a second from the violence that ensues. Only at the beginning of the film and the ending – the original ending was apparently seen as being much too bleak – soften the impact, but only slightly.
Brighton Rock is released in the UK by Optimum Releasing. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The DVD can also be purchased as part of the Graham Greene Collection boxset, which additionally includes The Third Man, The Fallen Idol and The Heart of the Matter.
The video quality is quite impressive, displaying a reasonably good range of greyscale tones. The contrast looks slightly boosted however, causing whites to glare slightly, but this is not excessive. Any other flaws are similarly minor – there is very little visible grain and only one or two minor marks or scratches. The majority of the film is remarkably clear and stable. Any artefact blocking is very minor and can only be seen in very few scenes and only if you are looking out for it. I also noticed one unusual flaw, where there was a split in the image for a fraction of a second, during the scene when William Hartnell’s Dallow is speaking to Rose in her bedroom.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and is generally clear, if slightly dull and having a rough edge. It’s more than adequate for the majority of the film, although I found the dialogue by Goldner’s Colleoni difficult to make out.
There are no subtitles on the DVD and no captions for hard of hearing, which is not good practice.
A barebones DVD, there are no extra features on this edition. This is particularly disappointing - Brighton Rock is worthy of examination through some documentaries and interviews, and really ought to be celebrated with a special edition.
Without the underlying subversion of the moral certitude of the cheery English optimism and bitter twisting of religious dogma that is in Graham Greene’s original novel, Brighton Rock loses much of the underlying force that supports its rather bleak and unrelentingly grim storyline. Without that, what we have left is nonetheless still a powerful, superbly cast, brilliantly performed and finely directed dark noir thriller. Like the stick of confectionary that the story takes its name from, no matter where you break it off, there remains a hard solid core, one of raw hatred and uncompromising nastiness. It is however a little too carefully wrapped and neatly tied-up at either end in the film version. For a barebones DVD, the new Optimum release is basic and fine as far as that goes, but this classic British film surely deserves a better edition and more supplemental material than this.