‘I’ve never changed. I’m like those sticks of rock. Bite one all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton’. The 1947 adaptation of Brighton Rock is based on the novel by Graham Greene, who incidentally also wrote the screenplay for the movie – and famously changed his own ending. Emerging from the tradition of the 1930’s American gangster movies, Brighton Rock is classic British gangster noir that features an electrifying performance from a very young Richard Attenborough.
Late 1930’s Brighton is run by vicious gangs, one of which is led by the teenage Pinkie Brown (Attenborough). After murdering rival Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), the police believe the death to be a suicide. However, singer and entertainer Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley) is suspicious of Pinkie’s involvement and endeavours to find out the truth about Fred’s untimely death. Meanwhile, Pinkie will do anything to establish a watertight alibi – even if it means marrying potential witness Rose (Carol Marsh) to prevent her giving evidence against him.
John Boulting’s acute direction, Harry Waxman’s chilling cinematography and Attenborough’s seminal portrayal of Pinkie Brown breathe life into Greene’s screenplay. Here, Brighton is much more than a setting – it is a character; the pier, arcades, saloon bars, race course, boarding houses and cafés are all carefully intertwined with the story. The typical seaside iconography is juxtaposed against the shady backstreets of the coastal town – the dark underbelly of an inter-war Brighton. No need to fret though, as the viewer is helpfully reminded by the opening credits (presumably influenced by the Brighton Tourist Board) that this sinister side of Brighton is ‘now happily no more’ (just in case you weren’t sure about that). The atmospheric lighting, camera angles, black and white photography and effective editing exude a sense of suspense and mood which are aptly fitting to the story and the era. Attenborough is perfectly menacing and ruthlessly callous in what must surely be his finest role, and one of the main draws of the movie. Hermione Baddeley is also outstanding and lavish in her role as the raucous broad Ida.
The only major flaw is Rose’s character, which constitutes the most problematic performance in the movie (albeit Carol Marsh makes a very good attempt). Rose is a very difficult character to identify with – how can someone fall in love with a man so overtly vicious and cruel? Her naivety is so blatant that it is slightly annoying; unfortunately she is not a well-written female character. However, on the whole, Brighton Rock is a classic piece of British gangster noir, which is rendered unforgettable primarily due to its style and Attenborough’s unnerving performance. Forget the more recent adaptation and pick up a copy of this 1947 thriller!
Best performance: Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown.
Best scene: The chase along Brighton Pier and Haunted House scene.
Click here to read 2011’s Brighton Rock.