Based on a novel by Greene published in 1937, Brighton Rock is not nearly as well known as The Third Man or The Fallen Idol, but it's not far behind in quality and power. Essentially a British film noir, the movie is strikingly, viciously unusual compared to other British films of the period in its moodiness, darkness and brutality.
Richard Attenborough stars as Pinkie Brown, a sadistic teenaged gangster in Brighton who uses a waitress named Rose as an alibi for murder. Filmed almost entirely on location in and around Brighton (there are a few studio interiors), Brighton Rock creates a sense of great realism and dread -- too great, in fact, according to critics of the time. The film's nastiness prompted a critical uproar, with The Daily Mirror declaring: "No woman will want to see it. No parents will want their children to see it. The razor-slashing scenes are horrific." This prompted Grahame Greene to write a reply, saying in a published letter: "Your critic's disgust is an indication that one purpose of the film - the presentation of a character possessed by evil - has been successfully achieved."
By contrast, when it was released in America as Young Scarface, Variety was ho-hum on the violence and complained only of the film's "leisurely" pace, though it added that co-star Hermione Baddeley "steals every scene in which she appears."
The making of Brighton Rock involved some heavyweight figures of the British film industry, mainly John and Roy Boulting, twin brothers who produced, wrote and directed many pictures together from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s. Sometimes John produced and Roy directed; other times they switched. For Brighton Rock, John directed. When the Boultings discovered Greene's novel and decided to pursue it, they found the screen rights already controlled by Anatole de Grunwald, Anthony Asquith, and playwright Terence Rattigan. The trio sold the rights, but Rattigan wanted to stay on board and write the script. The Boultings were resistant. John Boulting later explained, "We just didn't feel it was [Rattigan's] sort of area at all. So we had to be a little evasive with him. We thought it was highly desirable that Grahame should do it given that he had a filmic sense and tended to write in very vivid filmic images. He agreed to do it. We were delighted because we had always had this rather old-fashioned idea that the original creator was the best person to write the script."
As it turned out, Rattigan did write a treatment and received screen credit, but Greene altered and heavily rewrote it. Greene was happy to do so and also happy that the film shot on location. Of Brighton he said: "No city before the war...had such a hold on my affections. I knew it first as a child of six when I was sent with an aunt to convalesce after some illness. It was there I saw my first film, a silent one of course, and the story captured me forever: Sophy of Kravonia (1920), Anthony Hope's tale of a kitchenmaid who became a queen."
Later Greene returned to Brighton as an adult and saw a different, gloomier side of the city. "It's true that I have a predilection for shady places," he said. "It enabled me to understand Brighton and its seamy side. When I went there to work on novels, I would read up all the news about the fights between rival gangs for in those days knives and razor-blades were quickly drawn, particularly in the racing crowd."
There are some differences between the novel and the film. According to historian Quentin Falk, for example, an "agonized theology" fills the novel. Many of the religious aspects had to be toned down or deleted from Brighton Rock due to censorship requirements. (As Greene lamented, "Apparently one is allowed a certain latitude in using the name of God as an expletive, but any serious quotation from Bible is not permissible on the English screen.") Also deleted from the film were certain scenes of violence. The original climax to the novel, for instance, has Pinkie's face hit by acid before he falls over a cliff. In the film, he falls off a pier but there is no acid to the face.
The novel's powerful ending has Rose in a confessional after Pinkie's violent death, with the priest trying to comfort her with the words, "You can't conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God." Greene later explained that this scene bore the main idea of the story: "Brighton Rock [the novel] is written in such a way that people could plausibly imagine that Pinkie went to hell, but then I cast doubt on it in the ending. The real theme is embodied in the priest's phrase at the end. I wanted to introduce a doubt of Pinkie's future in the words of the priest, a doubt whether even a man like that could possibly merit eternal punishment... In fact, I wanted to throw doubt on hell altogether. I'm a great believer in purgatory. Purgatory to me makes sense, while hell doesn't."
For the movie, the confessional scene was changed to take place in a bright room with a nun, who delivers dialogue similar to the novel's priest. Rose then plays a record that was previously recorded by Pinkie in which he tells her how much he despises her. In the novel, the recorded message is "God damn you, you little bitch, why can't you go back home and leave me be?", and that is what Rose hears at the end. In the movie, we hear the recording made as: "What you want me to say is 'I love you.' I hate you, you little slut. Why don't you go back to Nelson Place and leave me be?" When Rose plays the record at the end of the movie, however, the needle gets stuck on "I love you," and plays the phrase over and over as the film concludes. Again this was done to avoid the censors objecting to such a cynical and devastating ending. Even Greene concurred that it would have been too explicitly bleak. Of the film's conclusion, he said, "Anyone who wanted a happy ending would feel they had had a happy ending. Anybody who had any sense would know that next time Rose would probably push the needle over the scratch and get the full message."
Richard Attenborough was 24 when he made Brighton Rock, even though his character Pinkie is only 17. The young actor and future Oscar®-winning filmmaker (Ghandi, 1982) had actually played Pinkie in a stage adaptation of Greene's novel a few years earlier. Greene had detested that play and didn't want Attenborough for the upcoming film. The Boultings, who had not seen the play, wanted Attenborough because of his excellent uncredited work in In Which We Serve (1942) and because they had liked him in their own previous film Journey Together (1946). The Boultings got their way, and when it was all over, Greene realized Attenborough had been a good choice after all.
Attenborough later recalled: "Greene wrote to me after seeing the film. He mentioned his misgivings, but added he didn't think it could have been done any better. I've kept and treasured that letter... In those days the character of Pinkie was a macabre novelty in British films. It was hard to understand how somebody like that would feel as he razor-slashed you, or as he told a girl to put a gun in her mouth to shoot herself. That is the kind of enormity I had to convey."
Some other interesting tidbits about the picture:
The "Colleoni" gang in the film was based on the real-life "Sabini" gang that existed in Brighton between the world wars. One of the members of this gang advised the filmmakers. As John Boulting said, "We had a marvelous little man called Carl Ramon, who used to carry the razor for Sabini, as our technical advisor."
Co-star Hermione Baddeley later received an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Room at the Top (1959) and played the maid, Ellen, in Mary Poppins (1964).
As a way of appeasing the city of Brighton, the Boultings inserted a written preface to the movie declaring the Brighton of 1947 to be a happy, sunny place that bore no relation to the Brighton of 1937 as depicted on screen.
Producer: Roy Boulting
Director: John Boulting
Screenplay: Graham Greene, Terence Rattigan, based on Graham Greene's novel
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Art Direction: John Howell
Music: Hans May
Film Editing: Peter Graham Scott
Cast: Richard Attenborough (Pinkie Brown), Carol Marsh (Rose Brown), Hermione Baddeley (Ida Arnold), William Hartnell (Dallow), Harcourt Williams (Prewitt), Wylie Watson (Spicer), Nigel Stock (Cubitt), Victoria Winter (Judy).
by Jeremy Arnold
Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene