Archive for the ‘Gangsters’ category

Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1947) [BFI #15]

27 November 2011

I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock. Bite one all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature. (Ida Arnold)

Brighton Rock

The Hollywood hard-boiled gangster movie might have seemed alien to the British way in 1947, but if it was going to take root then the years immediately following the Second World War was naturally the most fertile time.  Britain had a very different war from the Americans; the conflict brought extensive bombing of civilians, massive disruption of infrastructure, shortages and rationing.  In the dark weary years of austerity and reconstruction that followed, the climate was perfect for the spiv, the blackmarketeer and the protection racket.  And Britain, in Graham Greene, had its own chronicler of the dark and seedy.  The time had come for a distinctively British take on the genre.

As a noir novelist, Greene was a long way from the school of Dashiel Hammett and James M Cain.  A writer who straddled the line between the populist and the literary and, although he tried for a long time to separate the ‘entertainments’ from the ‘novels’, he never quite came down on either side.  In his later years, when many thought he was overdue for a well-deserved Nobel Prize for a string of works full of insights into the human condition, it was suggested that he was far too populist a writer to get the committee’s attention.  He just couldn’t win.  Greene’s universe is populated by unremarkable, unattractive, seedy (but seldom downright wicked) people caught up in a world beyond their control, and Brighton was just made for him.

Brighton Rock the novel is itself a sequel.  The setup can be confusing to the reader who isn’t familiar with the much less well-known A Gun For Sale, where the background to the teenage Pinky’s attempted takeover a gang of older petty crooks, and the terror of the journalist Hale who knows he’s going to be killed from the first sentence, is made clear.  But this is one of those rare sequels that grows way beyond the original.  A Gun For Sale is a potboiler, but Brighton Rock is a solid, serious novel that has its moments of dramatic action, is mostly concerned with what goes on in the characters’ heads, in particular their response to religious faith (or lack of it) and their notions of sin and morality, and it doesn’t really matter what came before.  Like much of Greene’s work, it reflects the author’s troubled relationship with the Roman Catholic church.  So we find that, ruthless as the child-gangster Pinky is (no doubt influenced by American hardboiled magazines), he takes his catholicism seriously and beneath his bravado lurks a terror of the afterlife.  And we find, too, that the naive, hapless waitress Rose, whom Pinky marries not for love but to prevent her giving evidence against him, agonises over the conflict between love and sin in innocently deciding to stand by her man to the very last.  And on the third corner of the triangle, the atheist (or at least agnostic) Ida stubbornly driven entirely by her outraged sense of morality, first to seek justice for the man Hale she hardly knows  but subsequently to find salvation for the straying Rose.

This is the makings  of a fine novel, but it’s been said many times that fine novels don’t necessarily film well.  The cinema demands a shot of glamour and the book doesn’t furnish it:  Pinky and his gang are squalid; Rose is dowdy; Ida blowsy and vulgar.  Fortunately we’ve got Greene himself, along with Terence Rattigan, to do the fine tuning.  They did a good job, one that doesn’t overwhelm truth to the book, although the philosophy is very much toned down.  Young Richard Attenborough makes a handome Pinky, as childlike in his amoral recklessness while still projected the existential terror behind his eyes.  Carol Marsh might be too pretty by half to be a credible Rose but she captures the trusting innocence well, so well one wants to slap her out of it as, not doubt, Ida might have in the book.  Hermione Baddeley’s Ida, though, is elevated from pub barfly to a performer in a promenade pierrot show, and the pierrot outfit which she wears throughout is a typical Greene touch that couldn’t have been done in the book.  Pinky’s gang – that’s William Hartnell, the First Doctor, in the loud suit and bow tie being suitably sinister as Dallow the enforcer – carry all the seediness and squalor; four flyblown older men in their crappy redoubt in Frank’s run-down tenement couldn’t stand in sharper contrast to the expensive hotel suite of Colleone, the rival gang leader that Pinky aspires to overthrow.  Watch Pinky’s rage when the hotel won’t let him have a room for his wedding night.

Pinky, though, has little interest in sex.  His relationship with Rose is pure expedience; Attenborough makes it very clear that he is physically repulsed by her.  What are we to conclude?  Homosexuality was a taboo subject in England in 1947 and references had to be carefully coded, but there’s plenty of code to find if we want to.  There’s always been speculation about Graham Greene’s sexuality; he vigorously denied being homosexual but leaving aside the homoeroticism soem discern in his writings his predilection for serial affairs, always with married women, has prompted questions.  John Boulting doesn’t shy away from this.  At the time Brighton was a byword for hetereosexual adultery (your wife in the Grand, your mistress in the Metropole) rather than the gay coding it carries today,  All the same the louche Colleone amidst the rococo flourishes of his suite would give all the information they needed to those looking for it.  What is Pinky’s real motive for his desire to supplant Colleone?  A man who, we are led to believe, could snuff Pinky out any time he wanted.  Can it be the pursuit of carnal desire rather than a realistic quest for power?  After all, that would be as much of a mortal sin to the Catholic as anything else Pinky has done or contemplated doing.

The cultural coding of Brighton as a place of seedy decadence has never been to everybody’s taste.  The council’s PR people were as ever alert to slights on their image as their twenty-first century successors.  Before they would let the producers film a critical scene at the council-owned Brighton Racecourse, they required the rather bizarre disclaimer at the beginning.  Brighton was like this before the war, we are assured, but it’s all changed now and the police have everything in hand.  We don’t believe it now and they didn’t believe it then.

This is an early outing for Graham Greene as screenwriter, Richard Attenborough and the Boulting brothers.  Nobody should be surprised to hear that we’ll be meeting all of them again and again on this tour through the best of British cinema.