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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Brighton Rock" (The Boulting Brothers, 1947)

There's a reason that 1947's Brighton Rock, produced by Roy Boulting, directed by John Boulting, and co-scripted by Graham Greene and Terrence Ratitgan, from Greene's novel, is rarely mentioned as one of the great screen adaptations of Greene. The reason being that it isn't.
This is not to say that the film is worthless. While it's certainly not great, it's somewhat better than just, say, a case study. But, seemingly paradoxically enough, where it achieves any sort of greatness at all it a case study. In Richard Attenborough's performance as young seaside gangster Pinkie Brown, an apotheosis of sorts is reached. It is this blandly, matter-of-factly menacing portrayal, mashed up with Olivier's cinematic Richard III and various British television comics and boiled like head cheese in the roiling pollutants of mid-'70s Britain, that gave rise to one Johnny Rotten.
It is amusing to consider that Attenborough, later to "distinguish" himself as a teary-eyed awards presenter (hysterically lampooned by Eric Idle on a Python episode, with small hoses attached to each side of his face to keep the waterworks going), director/presenter of any number of aesthetically challenged and socially nourishing films, and portrayer of an avuncular master of genetic mutation, pretty much made his name as an actor portraying this slimy, smooth-faced incarnation of sociopathy, a knife-wielding gang leader who talks himself into marrying a pretty, bovine waitress in order to keep buried the evidence of his most recent murder. Yeah, sounds like the set-up for a corker of a thriller, but despite the authenticity of the settings (so authentic that the Boultings had to add a nonsensical disclaimer to the beginning of the film to avoid the disapprobation of Brighton's city fathers), the gorgeously noirish cinematography of Harry Waxman (who would go on to lens Losey's The Sleeping Tiger and the Boultings' Twisted Nerve) and the frightening commitment of Attenborough's performance, this Brighton Rock is a lumbering thing, too slow to let the viewer know what its plot is, like, actually about, and too insistent on making sure the viewer knows that, plot aside, the tale is really about being Catholic. What it's like for a good, and morally straight Catholic—that'd be the waitress, Rose, played by Carol Marsh—and what it's like for an unobservant, and morally wretched, Catholic who's a believer nonetheless. That'd be Pinkie.
"Y'ever been in love?" Rose asks Pinkie on an early, erm, date. Pinkie demures, sort of; "I've watched it...I know love." All right, then. And in the wink of an eye the talk turns to His love. "You believe it, don't you," rushes Rose to the impassive Pinkie. "You think it's true!" "It" being the nailing, the resurrection, the damnation, particularly the damnation, oh, yes, Pinkie believes it. The other most compelling moment in the film is when Pinkie goes into one of those old recording booths that cut an acetate of your voice on a vinyl record—see, later, Godard's Masculin-feminin—and records a very nasty message to Rose, one which, were she to listen to it, would implode his whole scheme. Why does he put the seed of his own destruction so close within her reach? That's a good question. Probably something to do with the Catholicism issue, which is really, ahem, hammered home in the film's final shots, which lay out a preponderance of crucifixes such as has not been seen before or since, at least in my experience of the cinema.
What was haunting in Greene's novel becomes religious-ware-storefront kitsch in the film. Who knows; maybe the film's kow-towing to this lumpen iconography inspired John Lydon to aspire to become a bigger, more respectable, more competent Pinkie.
Brighton Rock is available on a good looking, extra-free Region 2 DVD from Optimum.
Greene said he wrote a happy ending for the film, thinking that, if the audience really considered it, they would understand that this was temporary — surely Rose would eventually play the rest of the record? But he saod he hadn’t counted on the Boultings selling his ending with such verve. I think he was also kidding himself — a happy ending which disintegrates when you think about it just isn’t satisfying — it doesn’t turn into a sad ending, just an ineffective happy ending. Still, I rather like the film, obviously for Lord Dickie, but also for William Hartnell, the first Dr. Who, in his vaudevillian suit with his oddly Chinese eyes. A compelling presence. Oh, and the death scene on the stairs is incredibly well put over.
One disagrees that Greene was kidding himself. The ‘happy’ ending – written in expectation that the ending of the book would be too bleak for the censors – can only be viewed as such by audience members for whom the end of a film is, literally, the end and gives it no more thought. The type of viewer who ponders what happens next would come to Greene’s conclusion and find not ‘an ineffective happy ending’ but a satisfying, if haunting ‘hanging’ conclusion. One suspects that while openly seeking to appease the censors (and please viewers for whom a bleak ending is unsatisfactory), Greene was also secretly winking to those who appreciated the grim outcome of his original novel.

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