Brighton Rock

June, 2009, Thriller

   Brighton Rock

American audiences don’t often think of England as the home of hard-bitten crime movies, but this adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, (with a screenplay by the author) has held up quite well in the years since its initial release in 1947, serving not only as an excellent example of film noir but also as witness to the importance of good acting in straight-forward thrillers. A crisp 92 minutes in length, Brighton Rock wastes not a frame in telling its story of cold-blooded murder and unrequited love set in the underworld milieu which flourished in the seaside town of Brighton during the years between the World Wars.

Sir Richard Attenborough’s career as an actor (The Great Escape, The Flight of the Phoenix) and director (Gandhi, A Chorus Line) induces audiences to think of him as an English gentleman, so it’s initially jolting to watch his portrayal of Pinkie Brown, a vicious small-time hoodlum as criminally ambitious as he is paranoid. When Pinkie and his henchmen ruthlessly eliminate a gang member who has failed to remain loyal to his crew, Brown initiates a series of reprisals which escalate into the serial destruction of the very people who support his criminal activities.

An innocent waitress accidentally becomes unwitting witness to one of Pinkie’s killings; since she can place him at the scene, he marries her in order to make it impossible for the police to force her to testify against him. But when he confides to his most trusted, (and crafty) lieutenant that he plans to kill her too, a mixture of concern for an innocent girl and the desire for self-preservation among felons lead the remnants of Pinkie’s gang to contact the police, leading to a confrontation which ends in a manner Pinkie could hardly have imagined…

Director John Boulting (Lucky Jim, I’m All Right Jack) peoples his cast with actors who have the seedy look and mannerisms of the thugs and grifters who populate Brighton Rock’s run-down boarding houses and saloons. These picturesque low-life’s thrive on ripping off race-track crowds and committing crimes against tourists that don’t attract too much attention from the authorities, but when Pinkie’s efforts turn lethal, the noose begins to tighten.

As Attenborough plays him, Pinkie’s fey mannerisms, fastidious personal habits and detached manner around women carry faint hints of a carefully-closeted homosexuality, while the music hall entertainers and petty crooks who make up Pinkie’s retinue epitomize the venality of petty criminality as they labor unsuccessfully to avoid the wrath of their increasingly unhinged boss.

The film’s black and white cinematography makes full use of shadows provided by Brighton’s lattice-work architecture, wordlessly examining a blue-collar resort struggling to rise above its social station. While the film’s special effects may strike contemporary audiences as hopelessly amateurish, they combine with the period costumes and realistically threadbare sets to provide a vivid and authentic recreation of a time and place long gone.

The Verdict? Not a great movie, but a fine example of Attenborough’s acting skills and the claustrophobic mood a solid director can achieve when he has the good sense to let his material speak for itself.          

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