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Saturday, November 25, 2017
John Boulting | Brighton Rock
into the abyss
by Douglas Messerli
Graham Greene and Terrence Rattigan (screenplay), John Boulting (director) Brighton Rock / 1947
In John Boulting’s 1947 film, Brighton Rock, Richard Attenborough—who died this year at the age of 90—plays a steely faced teenager named Pinkie, who heads a small Brighton gang of older men. His razor-carrying friends may be brutal, but the Catholic-born boy is by far the more of an outright psychotic personality. Indeed the movie opens with Pinkie and his gang honing in the reporter Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), who they hold responsible for their gang-leader’s, a man named Kite, death.
Terrified by their knowledge of his whereabouts, Hale is in town to publicize his book by placing small placards around Brighton with the name “Kolley Kibber.” Those who discover them are awarded a small amount of money if they redeem them, while anyone who figures out who Kolley Kibber really is will receive a larger cash award—Hale ceases the activity seeking out the company of women, at first a loud-voiced patron of the bar, Ida (Hermione Baddeley), who acts in a local Pierrot-costumed performance company, and later with a woman on the beach, who he asks to accompany him for the entire day so that he might be protected from the gang’s attack.
When his pick-up leaves him alone for a short bathroom break, the gang corners him, as Hale attempts to quite spectacularly race off. Finally caught, he is taken to a Brighton pier amusement ride, and is later discovered drowned. The police, despite Ida’s testimony that Hale had seemed frightened and troubled during their short meeting, determine the reporter’s death to have been a suicide. And like a somewhat blowsy Miss Marple, she proceeds to investigate what she believes to have been a murder.
Meanwhile, Pinkie, in order to avoid suspicion, has one of his men, Spicer, continue to distribute the “Kolley Kibber” placards around town to make it appear that Hale had simply continued to pursue his normal activities. But one of them, hidden under a restaurant tablecloth, troubles him since he is afraid that the waitress, an innocent, overly trusting girl named Rose (Carol Marsh) will realize it was left by Spicer rather than Hale. When he goes to retrieve it, he realizes that Rose, having removed the tablecloth, has already come to that conclusion, since she is especially good at recognizing faces. Determined to quiet her, Pinkie makes a date with her at the pier, and woes her, later determining to marry her to prevent her from testifying.
Another wrinkle in Pinkie’s increasingly claustrophobic life occurs when a rival, more powerful gang, challenges his territory, slashing his face (in the US the film was re-titled Young Scarface) and attempting to kill him and Spicer, whom Pinkie has intentionally brought to the racetrack for the Colleoni gang to kill.
Both survive, but Pinkie finally does in his fellow gang partner by pushing him through a high stair banister.
Further complications arise when Ida tracks down Rose, telling her who Pinkie really is and explaining that the young girl herself is in danger. Now desperately in love with Pinkie, Rose refuses to be dissuaded. And, soon after, the two are married, with Pinkie now planning to plot a double-suicide with the thoroughly trusting girl so they might be together forever.
Ida, who now knows the whole truth finally convinces the authorities to believe her, leads them to the pier where Rose, despite her religious reticence, is about to shoot herself, believing that he will soon follow her. She is saved just in time as the police rush in, she impulsively throwing the weapon into the water, Pinkie returning to question her about the gun, and, upon seeing the police, tries to make a run for it, accidentally falling into the sea to his death.
Earlier in the story, Pinkie has made a store-bought recording in which he, so Rose believes, has testified to his love for her, while actually saying: "What you want me to say is I love you. Well here is the truth. I hate you, you little slut. You make me sick." In Graham Greene’s original novel, Rose, who had no phonograph, finally hears the truth after Pinkie’s death. But British censor’s made the writers change the film’s ending, with, the final recording, which Pinkie has purposely scratched, repeating only the words “I love you,” and the naive girl still deluded. In some ways, it helped make the film far more cynical: those who want to believe can never not.
For my taste, Greene’s and Terence Rattigan’s screenplay (I’ve never been a Rattigan admirer; I’ve always loved the fact that Shelagh Delaney wrote her A Taste of Honey in response to a mediocre Rattigan melodrama) with its rather outlandish plot is more than a little fussy and, at moments, quite inexplicable. Why do the police think Hale’s death was a sudden suicide and how Ida so quickly and alertly stumbles upon the truth are both rather preposterous propositions. The “Kolley Kibber” publicity stunt seems absolutely absurd, seemingly introduced into the story simply to track the movements of Fred Hale. And the work never does explain how Hale might have been responsible for the death of former gang leader Kite. Or, for that matter, does the film even hint at how the young teenage boy (Attenborough was only 23 at the time of this performance) has so quickly risen in the gangland ranks? although we suspect it might have something to do his simple cruelty. How he got that way we can never know, except that Greene often conceived of a world in terms of goodness and evil, and Pinkie is most certainly a vision of the devil himself. As David Gritten pointed out in a review in The Telegraph, “Even his phone number contains a "666."
Yet the film does have several spectacular scenes, particularly the fun-house ride just prior to Hale’s death—which quite clearly prefigures Hitchcock’s funhouse scene in Strangers on a Train just before that film’s equally psychotic figure’s murder of Guy Haines’ nasty wife, Miriam. The razor fight at the racetrack is almost as good as the far-longer knife battle in West Side Story, and Baddeley’s visit to Pinkie’s crooked lawyer is comically memorable; this man recognizes that he is already in hell. Attenborough is quite convincing as the fallen angel with nowhere to go but straight into the abyss his religion has promised. And I suppose that the reviewer for Time Out is correct in suggesting Brighton Rock is “the nearest thing to a British noir thriller—although I might argue that British director Hitchcock created a better work in The Wrong Man (even if it was an American-produced film), and American director’s Jules Dassin’s British produced Night and the City is another noir contender. But, ultimately, I might also agree with Dilys Powell’s jibe: “It [Brighton Rock] proceeds with the efficiency, the precision and the anxiety to please of a circular saw.”
Los Angeles, September 2014
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2014).