Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Brighton Rock (1947)

Brighton is a popular sea-side city on the South coast of the the UK with a famous landmark pier. But as is explained at the start of 'Brighton Rock' from 1947, things weren't always like that. In the 1930s, things weren't all pleasant in popular destination Brighton, with mobs roaming the streets. 'Brighton Rock' is a movie about one such mob, and one particular smalltime mobster in particular, Pinkie Brown.

Based on Graham Greene's 1938 novel of the same name, 'Brighton Rock' is still one of the best, and bleakest, British thrillers/noirs. It was adapted into a screenplay by Graham Greene himself together with Terence Rattigan. The movie was directed by John Boulting, with his twin brother Roy Boulting producing. The Boulting brothers would produce and direct a lot a movies together all the way into the 1970s, including some thrillers such as 'High Treason' (1951) and 'Suspense' (1960), but nothing quite as dark as 'Brighton Rock'. Cinematography was handled by Harry Waxman and the musical score was done by Hans May.
'I've sunk so deep, I carry the secrets of a sewer.'
Set in 1935, the movie's central character is Pinkie Brown (an excelling Richard Attenborough), the 17-year old leader of a small gang in Brighton. About a week before the movie starts, the old leader of the gang, William Kite, was killed by a rival gang who suspected him of talking to reporter Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley). At the start of the movie, Hale is back in Brighton again to distribute cards worth money across Brighton under an alias, as a promotional stunt for his newspaper. Pinkie and his gang chase him up & down Brighton and the chase ends up on Brighton Pier, where Hale and Pinkie end up on a ghost train. Pinkie pushes Hale out of the cart when its above the sea and Hall plunges to his death. To establish an alibi, one of the gang members, Spicer (Wylie Watson) hides a few more cards in the neighborhood, including in a cafe. Pinkie doesn't like the latter location, as he assumes one of the people might have seen Spicer, and will notice he's not Hale should they check the newspapers. Pinkie goes to the cafe to retrieve the card, only to find that one of the waitresses, Rose (Carol Marsh) already found it. He decides to befriend her and keep an eye on her, even tho Fred's death is ruled accidental.

Pinkie and his gang are not the only people Fred meets during his last, and final, visit to Brighton however. He also comes into contact with a singer/dancer in a travelling theater, Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), who takes a liking to him. And when she finds out about Fred's death, she has her suspicions, which are only heightened by her 'psychic' powers. She decides to ask a few questions here and there to see what really happened to Fred. Pinkie in the meantime also has to deal with a rival mob led by Colleoni (Charles Goldner), whose outfit is much larger and more professional than his and they are ready to take over Pinkie's protection racket.

Pinkie, despite being only 17 years old, is the leader of the gang, and the other men in the gang are all at least 2 or even 3 times his age. Pinkie is ruthless, cold, filled with a lot of anger and hate, but he's a very calculated person with a natural tendency to lead rather than follow. He denies himself pleasures of any kind, he doesn't drink, smoke or eat chocolate, and has no interest in girls. Rose means nothing to him, except as a person who can ruin him, the only reason he is able to stand her around him. Rose however, who is a devout Christian, becomes almost a self-assigned martyr, deeply devoted to Pinkie. She's in love with Pinkie, but she also wants to be his savior, the catalyst through which he can repent for his sins. And for that she turns a blind eye to the truth, that he's a murderer. It's almost like she has found a purpose for her life, and that purpose is Pinkie's repentance. This stark contrast is quite painful to watch at times, especially when Pinkie records his voice onto a record for Rose. As she looks at him in an idolizing, devoted manner, he records for her his true feelings, and it's quite heartbreaking to watch. The recording comes into play again at the very end of the movie, again creating a gutwrenching and touching moment, which lingers on long after the movie ends, in more ways than one. They have the kind of cinematic relationship that you'll remember for a long, long time. It is to the credit of Graham Greene, Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh that this uneven and highly unbalanced relationship is believable and touching and not ridiculous to watch.
'You believe, don't you? You think it's true.' 
'Of course it's true. These atheists don't know nothing. Of course there's hell, flames, damnations, torments.' 
'Heaven too, Pinkie.' 
'Ah, maybe.'
Richard Attenborough is stunning in this movie. Despite being only in his early twenties when this movie was shot he brings a charisma, intensity and menace to Pinkie that is impossible to ignore. His eyes truly look like he's seething with hate inside. Pinkie is nothing sort of a fearless and ruthless psychopath. Likewise, Carol Marsh is almost equally great as well, she makes Rose into a saint-like person, devoted to Pinkie, even giving up her own chances of redemption, without coming off as creepy or deranged.

The other main characters are also memorable and are given excellent performances throughout by their actors. Pinkie's top man Dallow (William Hartnell, the very first Doctor Who), is almost as cold and callous as Pinkie, and doesn't even pretend to stop Pinkie when Pinkie's about to kill Spicer in a gruesome but beautifully shot scene. But unlike Pinkie, he still has somewhat of a moral compass. The gang also uses a corrupt and alcoholic lawyer to handle their affairs, Prewitt (Harcourt Williams), who is a coward and uses quotes from classic books to add gravity to his alcohol-soaked words and who is all too easily manipulated and controlled by Pinkie. Williams makes Prewitt a far more important seeming character because of his layered acting than Prewitt really is. Baddeley is also good as Ida Arnold, a brass and loud character which could've very easily been a caricature, but thankfully isn't, despite some outrageous outfits (she works as a pierrot for a group of performers).

Thematically and visually the movie is dark, dark, dark. There's not a sliver of hope for Pinkie, not even in the person of Rose, whom he doesn't accept, but merely tolerates because he must. And even Brighton starts to look menacing and threatening here, with its narrow sidestreets, the over-crowded and claustrophobic Brighton Pier and the small houses with their cramped rooms and dodgy staircases. And when the night falls and the rain is pouring down hard, the almost empty Brighton Pier becomes a nightmarish maze. The movie also has several point-of-view shots where the actors look straight into the camera, as if we're the person they're looking at. It really adds to the intensity of the movie and draws the viewer in even more. When Pinkie looks straight into the camera, at the viewer, you really feel the menace lurking behind his straight face.
'I wanted to be in a state of grace when I married you. But then I remembered, it wasn't any good confessing any more, ever.'
'Brighton Rock' is one of the very best films noirs in my opinion, it impresses from start to finish and in every way. It has great characters and performances, a compelling and pitch black story that is soaked in noir, it looks beautiful with some really memorable scenes and shots. It is a true classic in my book, and I cannot recommend it enough.


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