John Boulting’s seminal crime picture Brighton Rock is still regarded by many as one of the greatest British films of the post-war period, distinguished as a full-on, abrasive noir that lacks the stereotypical sheen and austerity of fare made on our shores. Rather, it is a hard-nosed meditation on life, love, and faith that has enjoyed a surprising endurance in the 60-plus years since its release. Recently brought back into the cultural consciousness with Rowan Joffe’s well-made if bloated remake, this is an incredibly opportune time to revisit the original, which finds its way to Blu-Ray this week.
Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) is the violent leader of a gang, who murders a pestering newspaper reporter on a Brighton pier. However, tied to his crime and capable of proving his guilt is Plain Jane waitress Rose (Carol Marsh), and so Pinkie takes it upon himself to ensnare her in his charms, taking advantage of her naivete and giving the impression that he intends to court her in order to protect himself. Wise to it all is Ida Arnold (Hermionne Baddeley), a local woman who simply cannot mind her own business and attempts to ensure that Rose is not pulled down into Pinkie’s unforgiving world.
Brighton Rock is a classic example of filmmaking that remains hugely accessible despite its age; what it lacks in technical sophistication compared to Joffe’s version it more than compensates for in terms of thematic potency and sheer power of performance. This is a film both exhilaratingly suspenseful and bleakly chilling, operating as a superlative entertainment and also as a social statement on the mindset of a post-war generation, while also augmenting the themes of Catholic guilt and gender roles as were present in Graham Greene’s original pre-war novel on which the film is based.
Best remembered is the film for Richard Attenborough’s sublime performance as Pinkie, ably encapsulating the fatal duality of his character, conflicted by his Roman Catholic upbringing and the guilt that his subsequent illegal activities bring about, combined with his own evident sociopathy. Sidestepping the disingenuous changes in character that so often mar contempotary cinema, Brighton Rock gives little reason for the viewer to like Pinkie, but simply to appreciate his bind, and that Attenborough so deftly conveys these concepts despite his boyish good looks is all the more praise to him.
Titled as “Young Scarface” upon its release in the U.S., Brighton Rock may very well be as iconic to one generation as the Pacino remake of Scarface is to a more recent one. The images of the Brighton pier, particularly during the exhilarating murder sequence set within the pier’s ghost train ride, are difficult to erase, if only by their sheer strangeness. Typically evoking notions of holidaying, fun, and relaxation, the pier is an ironic backdrop with which to stage a gangster picture, cleverly sidestepping cliche while giving the film a very sinister tone and aesthetic as we sense something untoward bubbles behind the alluring attractions and bright lights.
And of course, who can forget that ending, which thankfully remained in tact for Joffe’s remake. Surely the most memorable scene, and depending on your worldview either a devastating declaration of the power of self-deception, or a divine kindness, it only heightens the film’s grand emotional power and the haunting hopelessness that it opens as a dialogue for the generation for which its characters belong to.
While films of this period typically aren’t the easiest for contemporary audiences to warm to, Brighton Rock ticks a lot of boxes thanks to its unusual staging, magnificent performances, tense narrative and strong regard to thematics. As a touchstone for those trying to acquaint themselves with classic cinema, this is always going to be a firm pick.
Unfortunately, the Brighton Rock Blu-Ray is a perfect example of how poorly some classic films can translate to the high-def format. While there is a surprising level of detail in the environments and the characters, it is at the unfortunate cost of having to endure an incredibly grainy, speckled transfer, which is at the best of times distracting and at the worst will have you reaching for the low-fi DVD version instead…
Aurally, there’s little to complain about; it translates as well as can be expected from such an old film.
Interview with Rowan Joffe – this 20-minute sit-down with the director of the recent remake makes one regret that Joffe’s version didn’t scrub up better, because he seems very enthusiastic about the original and keen to do it service. The quality of the recording is surprisingly ropey despite evidently having been filmed recently.
Interview with John Boulting and Richard Attenborough at the BFI in 1954 – this dry 68-minute feature contains audio-only coverage of Boulting and Attenborough’s interview, put to a carousel of looping slideshow images which become tiresome rather quickly. Frustratingly, the clips of several films they mention have been excised due to licensing issues, and the broad, tangential nature of the interview dictates that not so much of it is actually relevant to Brighton Rock. Also, the journalists who ask questions in the second half are virtually inaudible.
In terms of content, Boulting seems very much a consummate professional and unerring professional, while Attenborough unsurprisingly charms the pants off of the journos. The most interesting moment comes when Attenborough tells an anecdote about the film censors of the time; a film he intended to make several years that depicted Germany as a menacing force was rejected on the grounds that it might strain diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany…
Brighton Rock was released on Blu-ray today.