Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1948)
This is a slightly re-written version of a presentation given before a screening of Brighton Rock at the Mitchell and Kenyon Cinema at the University of Central Lancashire on 16 April 2008.
Adapted from Graham Greene’s novel, Brighton Rock was brought to the cinema by John and Roy Boulting in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Boulting brothers had established a reputation for producing films with a commitment to social comment, and actively sought out Greene’s novel with its tale of Pinkie Brown, a brutal young killer in 1930s Brighton. For John Boulting the film was to be unlike the illusions of Hollywood, what he referred to as the ‘opiates’ of the day; and, armed with a commitment to realism the brothers declared that they would ‘yet prove how dramatic real life could be’ .
The film made a star of Richard Attenborough, who had previously taken the role of Pinkie in the stage version of Brighton Rock, and had worked with the Boulting brothers on Journey Together (1945) and The Guinea Pig (1948). Pinkie is ‘a character possessed by evil:’
He is lonely, neurotic and isolated, unable to love or trust, and can find fulfilment only in cruelty or violence. Convinced of the horrors of damnation waiting for every sinner, Pinkie embodies the true believing Catholic’s contempt for the shabby compromises and muddled, evasive satisfactions of everyday life .
Attenborough’s portrayal of the vicious young criminal has been considered a reflection of anxieties with regard to the influence of American popular culture on young people in Britain, but, ultimately, Pinkie’s malevolence cannot be explained by his social world. Unlike Dallow (played by William Hartnell), the gangster who sees only world before him, Pinkie believes in an unseen world, immaterial, eternal, and inescapable. Pinkie’s tragedy is that he cannot conceive of heaven, while he has a vivid conception of hell. In return for some advantage in this world, Pinkie accepts his damnation in the next; and it is his Catholic vision of the underworld that leads Pinkie to commit his crimes and to refuse the possibility for salvation in his relationship with Rose (Carol Marsh). Death is not the end of the film, and Pinkie’s evil persists beyond the grave. His recorded message for Rose (‘I love you’) is at once hopeful and cruel – a happy ending without mercy.
The critic Raymond Durgnat has noted that the Boulting’s post-war films are marked by a ‘moral disenchantment’ that had eroded the idealism of the brothers’ wartime films such as Thunder Rock (1942) and Desert Victory (1943) . It is this disenchantment that defines the film’s representation of England. Pinkie represents ‘a hedonistic and aggressive individualism which stands in opposition to the nation’s dominant values of duty, service, thrift, restraint, gentleness, and concern for others’  He represents freedom from the restrictions of the wartime economy, freedom from rationing, and freedom from the strict morality of the day – a fantasy for contemporary viewers, and the price of this fantasy is our acceptance of Pinkie’s wickedness. The Boulting brothers were careful to avoid the charge of glamorising the criminal lifestyle; but Pinkie is evil, and this is the viewer’s source of pleasure in the film. His lack of restraint is attractive rather than repellent. His ability to act beyond the law secure in the knowledge that he is destined for Hades gives succour to the viewer, allowing us to enjoy Pinkie’s evil without troubling our own conscience. Pinkie is already damned, and knows and accepts this. He needs no judgment from the viewer, and so Pinkie’s freedom becomes our freedom.
Although the film made a star of Attenborough, it is Brighton that is the real star of the film. John Boulting, a native of near-by Hove, observed that ‘[t]he setting was not a backdrop; it was one of the characters’ . The opening caption of the film attempts to relegate the criminal activity of the film to the past – a necessary addition to the film in order to secure the co-operation of the local council for the use of filming locations – but in doing so it raises the issue of whether we are watching a genre film or a quasi-documentary on Brighton’s recent, brutal past . The film represents the city in two ways, developing a tension between the generic space of the Hollywood gangster film (the material world of Dallow) and the literal space of the English location . On its American release, the film was retitled ‘Young Scarface,’ referencing the Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s, and the world of Pinkie and his gang is one of darkness and shadow familiar to us from film noir. Like film noir, Brighton Rock uses shadow and mise-en-scène to break up the image and suggest to us the fragmentation of the character’s psyche – we first see Pinkie framed through a ‘cat’s cradle’ made of string. He is already damned, already trapped. This world is Pinkie’s living hell – Prewitt (Harcourt Williams), the lawyer, quotes Christopher Marlowe: ‘Why, this is hell, nor are we out of it.’ In contrast to this use of American style, the Englishness of the film is associated with the cultural traditions of the seaside town – the amusements at the pier, the music hall – which are brightly lit. This only serves to make Brighton all the more terrifying – the British seaside town as a place of innocent pleasure for the holidaymaker is rendered terrifying; the simple pleasures of the amusements become menacing, and the fairground rides that thrill us in safety are the site of the most depraved acts. ‘Dante’s Inferno’ is no mere fairground ride – this is hell . This serves only to emphasise Pinkie’s precociousness, linking childish pleasures to the most horrific of acts – the title, Brighton Rock, comes from Pinkie’s choice of murder weapon. The seemingly safe world is hell, but the holidaying crowds on the promenade do not realise this fact. They lack Pinkie’s insight into world, and so they invite Pinkie’s (and, by extension, our) contempt.
The critical reception of Brighton Rock was mixed. Generally, the film was praised for its realism. Joan Lester, writing for The Reynold’s News, commended the film for the way in which it ‘relentlessly deglamourises crime and the criminal,’ remarking ‘how completely authentic is the frustration and joylessness of these creates, their fundamental cowardice’ . Reg Whitley, film citric of the Daily Mirror, took the opposite view and described the film as ‘false, cheap, nasty sensationalism’ comprising ‘ninety-two minutes of murder, brutality, beating up,’ which ‘no woman would want to see’ . Today, Brighton Rock has become a classic of British cinema and was placed at number fifteen in the British Film Institute’s poll of the nation’s favourite movies. It has been influential in creating a tradition of the realist gangster film in the United Kingdom that can be seen in Hell is a City (1960), Get Carter (1973), and The Long Good Friday (1979), having provided us in Pinkie and in Brighton with an image of the immortal soul tortured in hell.
Brighton Rock (Associated British Picture Corporation, 1948) prod. Roy Boulting, dir. John Boulting, wr. Graham Greene, Terence Rattigan, novel Graham Greene, ph. Harry Waxman, ed. Peter Graham Scott, m. Hans May. Cast: Richard Attenborough (Pinkie Brown), Hermione Baddeley (Ida Arnold), William Hartnell (Dallow), Nigel Stock (Cubitt), Wylie Watson (Spicer), Carol Marsh (Rose), Harcourt Williams (Prewitt), Virginia Water (Judy), Reginald Purdell (Frank), George Carney (Phil Corkery), Charles Goldner (Colleoni), Alan Wheatley (Fred Hale), Linda Barrie (Molly), Joan Sterndale-Bennett (Delia), Harry Ross (Brewer), Campbell Copelin (police inspector), Mary Stone (Waitress), Norman Watson (racecourse evangelist).
- Quoted in Laurie Ede, ‘High Reason: The Boulting’s Meet the Ghost of Matthew Arnold,’ in Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan, and Paul Wells (eds.) The Family Way: The Boulting Brothers and British Film Culture. Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000: 40.
- Andrew Spicer, ‘Misfits and the Marginalised: Gender in the Boulting’s Feature Films,’ in Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan, and Paul Wells (eds.) The Family Way: The Boulting Brothers and British Film Culture. Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000: 75.
- Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence. London: Faber and Faber, 1970: 42.
- Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, ‘Parole Overdue: Releasing the British Crime Film into the Critical Community,’ in Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy (eds.) British Crime Cinema. London: Routledge, 1999: 2.
- Quoted in Steve Chibnall, ‘Purgatory at the End of the Pier: Imprinting a Sense of Place through Brighton Rock,’ in Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan, and Paul Wells (eds.) The Family Way: The Boulting Brothers and British Film Culture. Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000: 135.
- Andrew Spicer, ‘Misfits and the Marginalised:’ 75.
- Charlotte Brundson, ‘Space and Time in the British Crime Film,’ in Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy (eds.) British Crime Cinema. London: Routledge, 1999: 148.
- For a similar take on the British seaside, see Simon Ashdown and Jeremy Dyson’s series ‘Funland’ (BBC, 2005), which depicts Blackpool as a hell every bit as terrifying as Pinkie’s Brighton and has the odd nod to Alfred Hitchcock.
- Quoted in Chibnall, ‘Purgatory at the End of the Pier:’ 138.
- Quoted in Steve Chibnall, Brighton Rock. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005: 104.