Brighton Rock opens with a disclaimer that the town it depicts is of the past; “another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums…crime and violence and gang warfare…now happily no more;. And yet the film, based on Graham Green’s 1938 pre-war novel, stands up so well because of its prescience about the post-war period.
Greene insisted that his novel drew on a background that was already passing into social history with the Brighton race gangs being all but gone, yet the film is powerfully prophetic. Brighton Rock in part is intended as an attack on the rise of popular culture, which Greene clearly detested, but time has transformed it into a paean to the melancholy of English youth that filled the post-war period. At moments the film seems to almost reach English Noir excellence, although it isn’t the best example of that genre, with a weird ‘soft ending’.
In late 1930s Brighton, vicious gangs rule the roost, especially one led by soulless teenager Pinkie Brown. After killing a man at the fairground, he attempts to establish a watertight alibi by marrying Rose, a potential witness, to prevent her from giving evidence against him. Pinkie Brown has no past, childhood or explanation, although we know he is 17 and is referred to still as a ‘boy’ in the book. His eyes were touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went wrote Greene, as if Pinkie had come from the depths of Hell itself. He personifies chronic violence and sexual freeze, although doesn’t seem to suffer it.
The public were horrified by Pinkie upon publication of the book but by the time 23-year- old Richard Attenborough came to play him for the film, the razor-happy English gangster – the spiv – had become better known. Wide-eyed Rose, played by Carol Marsh, is just 16 and all of the things Pinkie isn’t. The film is a study in good and evil, innocence and infantile depravity that sadly becomes an unconvincing mystery story, with the ‘perfect crime’ being
Catholic Pinkie persuading Rose damn herself for all eternity by taking her own life. It is a strange film really, and reveals Greene’s tight-lipped desire for unspeakable things.
The void in Pinkie’s background is at odds with the overall air of realism. In the mood of the Whitsun bank holiday and the day at the races it is almost possible to smell Brighton- the real fishiness and limp sun of the British seaside. Getting the town and its drab fun so right only underlines how at odds Pinkie is with the rest of the film. Here is not an authentic juvenile delinquent, not an ‘Angry Young Man’, but a warped religious spirit- a demon possessed. Thus he is beyond the explanations of social realism…
And I’m not quite sure that it works.
Social Realism focuses on social issues and the hardships of everyday life for the poor or underclass. It is the most typically British of all film genres, although it will never bring in the tourists the way a Richard Curtis rom-com does. Post World War I it was widely felt that the key to national cinema was ‘realism and restraint’ yet this was to the tastes of the mainly southern middle-class audience rather than the class it depicts. As such realism carries distinctly patrician connotations of education and high seriousness.
Perhaps the Boulting Brothers- who alternated their credits for Director and Producer in the films they made together- use Pinkie to stand against this near demonisation of the working class. For he is, in truth, demon himself.