Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. John Boulting's Brighton Rock (1947) is showing December 23, 2017 - January 22, 2018 on MUBI in the United States.
There’s a shadow cast over the sun-kissed, seaside resort of Brighton. In 1935, a vulnerable time between two world wars, a noirish stain of violent gangsterdom has contaminated the fun and frivolity of the town’s tourist trade. But that’s largely behind the scenes. In Brighton Rock, a distinctive 1947 British feature, the slums that harbor such murderous criminality are kept under wraps, cloaked by the blinding, warm, soaking sun. Based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name, and directed by John Boulting (producing duties went to Boulting brother Roy, though the two would often switch roles for other films), this superb picture discloses with penetrating clarity an emotional street life teeming beneath the veneer of amusement park gaiety.
This concealed corruption is made semi-public, however, when a newspaper headline proclaims the dubious death of gang boss Kite, recently the subject of a Fred Hale exposé. Kite’s cohorts set their retaliatory sights on the sensational journalist, hoping to punish him for his roundabout connection to the curious casualty. Leading the charge is newly-anointed ringleader Pinkie Brown, played with frighteningly volatile perversion by 24-year-old Richard Attenborough. Given the reigns of the operation, Pinkie asserts himself as a menacing, fidgeting figure, twisting a lock of string and brooding alone in his bedroom, his solemn face augmented by wide, wild eyes. Like a sinister amalgam of Peter Lorre and Alex DeLarge, his odd gaze is neither here nor there; even when speaking directly to someone, he has a way of looking past them, or through them, with crazed detachment. He is cold, paranoid, and tense, his festering capacity for violence barely suppressed by bizarre, tell-tale behavior, like plucking the hair from the head a doll. A second-tier neighborhood goon (he is taunted and haunted by the more influential Colleoni), Pinkie makes up for his moderated status with strangeness and sadism.
Once the deed is done, and Hale has been suitably disposed of in a frenetically-staged homicide, the hasty coverup begins. While Pinkie and his band perform the murder with relatively determined focus, their ensuing response is considerably less meticulous—perhaps this is why they have never hit the big time. Unwittingly involved in the intrigue is Rose (newcomer Carol Marsh), a sweet teenage café worker who witnesses part of the post-crime conspiracy and grows enamored by Pinkie. “I never forget a face,” she says, acknowledging her insight and sealing her fate. That kindly Rose would somehow accept the brutish hood—and not just accept, but adore—is one of the more perplexing facets of Brighton Rock, but there it is; that’s love. The pathetically pleasant Rose provides the painful heart of the picture. Caught up in an unusual marriage-for-silence scheme, she offers some degree of fleeting promise for Pinkie (who, believe it or not, is also supposed to be a teenager), suggesting through her fidelity that there may be something amiable behind those distressing eyes. Blind to his cruelty, romantically dotty to her detriment, Rose receives the deceptive warmth of Pinkie’s caustic embrace and cautiously enters the fold, an unblemished diamond in the rough. Through the tragic anxiety of her situation, one hopes for a change. She is so pure, so dutiful and devoted that perhaps Pinkie won’t commit to his final solution. Perhaps he isn’t that bad. But he is that bad—that’s why he’s such an engaging monster.
According to Nigel Richardson, writing in The Telegraph, the inexperienced Marsh sought out the role of Rose on the basis of a Boulting advertisement calling for, “one 16- or 17-year-old girl, frail, innocent, naive and tolerably but not excessively pretty….” She may exceed this physical condition (Marsh is effortlessly beautiful), but she certainly achieves the requisite meekness, and when she admitted she had never seen Brighton Rock and “couldn’t bear to,” it’s easy to see why. The devastating pinnacle of the film comes when Rose pleads for Pinkie to record a message for her, so she will always be able to listen to his voice. Entering the private recording booth, he states the following: “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.” All the while, the camera moves in on her hopeful, heartfelt face, looking in at the man she loves.
Allegiances in Pinkie’s posse were unstable to begin with, but the haphazard reaction to a steadily-crippling inquisition further tests the loyal constitution of this motley crew. And the presence of meddling Ida Arnold doesn’t help. Attenborough had appeared in a 1944 stage adaptation of Greene’s novel, as did William Hartnell, who plays one of Pinkie’s henchman, and Hermione Baddeley, whose turn as the delightfully uncouth Ida is one of Brighton Rock’s most amusing character qualities. For a brief time, Ida had taken a shine to the hapless Fred Hale, and when he suddenly turns of dead, and his death is attributed to self-inflicted or natural causes, she doesn’t buy the story. Her suspicion is well-founded, of course, and her perseverance is laudable. This boisterous woman, described by Rose as “a big woman with a laugh,” sets off on her own amateur investigation, bringing along her kooky charm and utter lack of pretense (a performer on the Brighton pier, she is at one point still in her clown costume as a lavish fur coat also drapes over her shoulders). Baddeley is an amusingly grounded mediator between the malice of Attenborough and the docility of Marsh.
John Boulting saw in Greene’s text an additional aspect worth distinguishing in his cinematic reworking: “The setting,” he said, “was not a backdrop; it was one of the characters.” Through the efforts of cinematographer Harry Waxman, whose first feature was Boulting’s 1945 directorial debut, Journey Together, which also starred Attenborough, the bustling Brighton streets come alive with impulsive concentration. In one extended pursuit, Waxman and Boulting survey a vivid, active swath of the city, and by employing hidden cameras, the two were able to maintain a prevailing sense of atmospheric authenticity, securing snapshots of the setting and the impression of its oblivious passersby. The realization of this particular depiction, suited to the needs of the narrative, is a Brighton that is hospitably bright by day, but is blanketed by a night that is dark and foreboding, giving way to figuratively portentous thunderstorms and showers. The picture has a sharp visual intensity, like a straight razor slash to the face; it is shaped by hard, strategic shafts of light, rousing camera movements, and skewed angles, all working to generate spectator positions that bring the previously unseen into ingeniously accomplished view.
Released in the United States as “Young Scarface,” Brighton Rock had its roots in real-life Depression-era gangland activity, but arguably more than that, it had its thematic foundation in Greene’s deep-seeded Catholicism, manifest here by pervasive guilt and the predominance of a tortured soul. Tormented by the concepts of hell and damnation, Pinkie seeks an immediate security, one to temporarily satisfy the absence of his ever-lasting salvation. Terrifying close-ups probe this apprehension, isolating the notion that he is destined to suffer for his transgressions. It’s an accepted fatalism that runs throughout Brighton Rock, even existing in the good-humored Ida, who counters Rose’s optimistic contention that, “People change, they repent,” by sincerely arguing, “Oh no they don’t. Look at me.” Though still prominent, the text’s related religious imagery had to be toned down for the film, as did some of the despairing content, namely the concluding scene where, much to the disappointment of Greene, who had it otherwise in his novel, the benevolent Rose does not hear Pinkie’s full recording, but simply a scratched record document of “I love you … I love you … I love you.”
Still, Brighton Rock is downbeat by any standard, and there was enough about the film’s harsh content to ruffle a few dignified feathers upon its initial release. Take the Daily Mirror’s Reg Whitley, for example, who condemned the picture as, “false, nasty, cheap sensationalism,” making the argument that, “No woman will want to see it. No parents will want their children to see it.” Evoking his spiritual intent, Greene replied to this evaluation with a pointed, entirely accurate rebuttal: “Your critic’s disgust is an indication that one purpose of the film—the presentation of a character possessed by evil— has been successfully achieved.” Indeed it has, and so much more.