BRIGHTON ROCK: Blu-ray (Charter/Associated British Pictures, 1948) Kino Lorber
A darkly purposed crime melodrama, greatly enhanced by its beach and boardwalk locales, beautifully photographed in season by Harry Waxman, director, John Boulting’s Brighton Rock (1948) proved a genuine crowd-pleaser that had the critics indignant and decrying its overt violence. Truth to tell, there remains something marginally distasteful about the whole affair; not the least, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) – the diminutive and unrepentant teenage thug, aspiring to the upper echelons of this localized gangland milieu with his twenty-something crew, pushing one man, Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley) off a careening carnival dark ride to his death, then, setting up one of his own, Spicer (Wylie Watson) to be murdered by the competition in broad daylight, before finishing the job himself to look like an accident from a third-story banister. One thing about Fred’s murder bothers Pinkie, that the ‘Kolley Kibber’ contest he was perpetuating at the time of his demise will clearly give away his time of death, placing Pinkie at the scene…that is, unless Pinkie can reclaim one of the contest ballads, left behind at a café on the Palace Pier. To establish his alibi, Pinkie seduces ingenue/waitress, Rose (Carol Marsh) who adores him unequivocally, but whom he endeavors to humiliate by making a record of his voice to be played later, declaring his utter contempt and calling out Rose as a slut. What a prince! As scripted by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan, based on Greene’s novel of the same name, Brighton Rock is decidedly bent to shock and, occasionally, still does. But best performance in the picture is not Attenborough’s - although he amply endows this ugly fiend with the appropriate menace - but rather, owned by seasoned ham, Hermione Baddeley as musical hall busker, Ida Arnold – a gregarious loudmouth. Upon learning of Fred’s demise, Ida becomes entrenched in unearthing the truth, despite repeatedly putting herself in grave danger.
Greene’s novel, first published in 1938 was not a runaway success. But the picture based on it caught critics sideways with its graphic depictions of crime and violence, the straight razor slashing, judged as too ‘horrific.’ By today’s standards, it’s all pretty tame – one modest gash across the cheek, easily healed within the context of the next two or three scenes that follow it. But this is 1948 – a year, and, a generation unaccustomed to even the concept of a gun and the bullet leaving its chamber being photographed in the same film frame. Brighton Rock ruffled quite a few feathers with the Catholic archdiocese and was, in fact, banned in New South Wales. Greene’s objections to the movie were more cerebral and based on Boulting’s decision to ‘soften the blow’ to Rose’s conceit. In the novel, she plays the record and learns what Pinkie really thought of her – enough to send her psyche into an emotional tailspin and suicide. In the movie, the record gets played. However, due to a scratch, the needle gets repeatedly stuck on Pinkie’s reading of the line, “I love you.” Until this faux moment of hopeful resolution, it was all quite good – or rather, awful, in a grandly tragic way, with remorseless Pinkie brewing up a storm. For Attenborough, then only 23, Brighton Rock was yet another important step on the path to achieving considerable notoriety as an actor/producer/director – appearing in and/or creating some of the biggest movies of his generation; 1958’s Dunkirk, 1963’s The Great Escape, 1972’s Young Winston, 1982’s Gandhi, and, 1993’s Jurassic Park among them.
Brighton Rock was, of course, a novel before it became a movie: Greene’s book, first published in 1938 and titled in reference to a candied confectionery sold at seaside resorts; a metaphor for Pinkie Brown’s razor-back personality. In some ways, the novel was a follow-up to Greene’s A Gun for Sale (1936), as the murder of a gang boss, Kite, briefly mentioned in A Gun for Sale, allows Pinkie to take over his gang in Brighton Rock. The novel’s popularity saw it translated twice into a stage play – first, in 1942, with Eric Linden as Pinkie, then, a year later, with Attenborough starring. Greene, long since considered one of England’s premiere novelists was unique, in that his works frequently charmed the literati while proving commercially successful – usually an anathema to the critics. Of his 25 novels, all but a handful are social critiques of the indecisive malaise afflicting moral judgement, often skewed through a very Catholic perspective. Indeed, in Brighton Rock, Rose’s naïve good nature is linked to her deep and abiding faith, conversely, scoffed at by the godless and morally bankrupt Pinkie who, ostensibly, believes in absolutely nothing.
If nothing else, Brighton Rock plainly demonstrated the Brits could make a sordid crime/drama, ripped from the headlines, and, just as vicious as anything conceived at Warner Bros. during the height of the Depression with Cagney, Raft or Bogart – crime capers made just prior to the instillation of Hollywood’s self-governing production code. Our story is set in 1935, a newspaper headline informing the audience a local gangster named Kite has been found murdered. Kite’s former accomplices are now under ‘new management’ – Pinkie Brown, a psychopathic adolescent thug. Pinkie discovers the reporter who broke the story - Fred Hale – is in town for a promotional stunt for his paper, leaving cards redeemable for monetary prizes – the big payoff going to the first person who can publicly identify Fred by his penname, Kolley Kibber. As Pinkie and the surviving gang clearly hold Fred responsible for Kite’s death, they now stalk and terrorize him as he attempts, in vain, to blend into the unsuspecting crowd. Fred tries to convince boardwalk busker, Ida Arnold he is in grave danger. She is sympathetic, but does not take his sincere fears to heart. Leaving Fred for only a moment, Ida returns to discover he has suddenly vanished into thin air. In fact, Fred tried to elude Pinkie by ducking into one of the boardwalk’s dark rides – Dante’s Inferno. During the ride, Pinkie managed to throw Fred from the careening car, killing him instantly.
Sometime later, Fred’s body is discovered. However, the police believe he died, either of a heart attack or suicide. Only Ida suspects foul play. After appealing to the police inspector (Campbell Copelin) and getting absolutely nowhere, Ida elects to undertake her own amateur investigation of the crime. Before the discovery of Fred’s body, and, to establish his alibi, Pinkie sends Spicer, to secretly distribute Fred's cards, making it appear as though Fred is still alive. Alas, Spicer errs when he leaves one of the cards under a tablecloth at the café, risking his own identity with Rose – the waitress who attended him. Pinkie is incensed, but can find no takers to return to the café and reclaim the card before anyone is the wiser. So, Pinkie goes it alone and is introduced to Rose who clearly can identify Spicer as the man who left behind Fred’s card. Naïvely, she does not connect the dots to see what Pinkie is after. Now, in his failed endeavor to hook up with Colleoni (Charles Goldner), a big-time kingpin, Pinkie instead rubs his rival the wrong way. Thus, when Pinkie elects to do away with Spicer – whose loyalty is beyond question, but whose lack of judgement could be his undoing – he suggests Colleoni’s boys do the job as a favor, for which Pinkie will then join Colleoni’s gang.
The frame-up is set for the next afternoon at the races, just as Pinkie is encouraging Spicer to lay low. Alas, Colleoni has no intention of allowing Pinkie to join his organization. Instead, he sends his goon squad to kill both men; Pinkie, surviving the public skirmish with only a superficial razor-wound to his cheek. Returning to his flat, Pinkie learns from his second in command, Dallow (William Hartnell) Spicer has also escaped from the assault with only a few minor cuts and bruises. Feigning his renewed friendship, Pinkie hurries Spicer into the hallway, then forcibly shoves him over the side of a rickety third-floor banister. Spicer plummets to the lobby, breaking his neck. Now, Pinkie aggressively pursues Rose. She is smitten with him and absolutely refuses to entertain the notion he has done anything wrong. Thus, they are wed at Pinkie’s behest. Pinkie knows a wife cannot be called upon to testify against her husband, leading police to a dead end. During their whirlwind honeymoon, Rose implores Pinkie to make a copy of his voice on a record at one of the boardwalk’s novelty booths – a reminder of his love for her to play when he is ‘away on business.’ Disgusted by her innocence, Pinkie enters the booth alone and records an absolutely incendiary diatribe, instead to confess his deep and murderously cruel contempt for Rose, calling her out as nothing better than his slut.
As the couple do not own a gramophone, Rose will have no way of replaying this message and therefore no way of truly knowing the depths of Pinkie’s depravity nor even of the wicked little toad to whom she has sold herself in marriage. Meanwhile, Ida has begun to fit the pieces of the crime together. Suspecting Pinkie of Fred’s murder – and learning of Spicer’s demise, Ida poses as Rose’s mother while Pinkie is out, desperately imploring the girl to reconsider her loyalties. Unable to turn Rose’s head, Ida departs Pinkie’s flat without a confession. Only now, Pinkie reasons he must tie up the last of his loose ends. Rose must die. Pinkie also tries to destroy the recording he made. Alas, the metal disc is impervious to destruction. Pinkie is only successful at carving several deep scratches into its grooves. Now, Pinkie professes love, then insists he and Rose enter into a suicide pact to escape the law. He will watch as she takes her own life first with his pistol, then, follow her directly to the great beyond where, he promises, they shall remain together forever. Dallow is sincerely opposed to this idea, as Ida is about to leave Brighton without having collected the necessary evidence to convict him. Pinkie now bribes Colleoni into paying him and Dallow off to leave town for good.
With Rose in tow, Pinkie and Dallow return to the boardwalk for a farewell drink. However, when Ida suddenly reappears quite by accident with the police, a paranoid Pinkie decides Rose must die. Hurrying her from the bar and down to the boardwalk in the pouring rain, Pinkie convinces Rose he will be hanged unless they both commit suicide immediately. Alas, Rose, a Catholic, is conflicted in her love and by religious prohibition against suicide. Her split-second hesitation allows just enough time for a reformed Dallow to lead Ida and the police to the steps beneath the boardwalk where Pinkie and Rose await their fate. Upon seeing the police, Rose tosses Pinkie’s piston into the water. He desperately tries to flee, but slips on the rain-soaked floorboards and plummets off the pier to his watery grave. Sometime later, a thoroughly inconsolable Rose, sequestered in a convent, tries to play Pinkie’s record on a portable gramophone to hear his voice again. The recording begins, but mercifully is damaged beyond repair, sticking at the words “I love you” – repeated over and over again, allowing Rose’s fantasy to endure - that Pinkie Brown really did love her.
Brighton Rock is expertly photographed by Harry Waxman in B&W, employing the conventions of noir to evoke a spooky atmosphere, especially during Fred Haley’s murder, and, the penultimate death of Pinkie Brown. Between these book-ends, the movie greatly benefits from solid performances by Attenborough, Hartnell, Marsh and Baddeley – the latter, proving the standout from this crowd. And a moment’s pause and tribute here to Baddeley – born, Hermione Youlanda Ruby Clinton-Baddeley in 1906, and for whom the moniker of the brash and blowsy broad seemed to fit her inimitable charm, repeatedly cast as the lovably obtuse vulgarian. Today, Baddeley is likely best remembered for two back-to-back big screen roles in 1964: the first, as Ellen, the maid in Mary Poppins, and then, as the deliciously crass next-door neighbor, Buttercup Grogen, who falls in love with Ed Bagley Sr. in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Baddeley also had a stage career aligned in its popularity to that of imminent playwright and all-around Brit-wit, Noël Coward. Steadily to work, Baddeley would later become well-known to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, in reoccurring roles on such popular TV shows as Bewitched (1964-72), Batman (1966-68), Maude (1972-78) and, Little House on the Prairie (1974 – 82). During this time, she also lent her instantly identifiable voice to the animated classics, The Aristocats (1970) and The Secret of NIMH (1982) – a very resilient, hard-working lady to the end.
Released state’s side as ‘Young Scarface’ – Brighton Rock was not nearly as successful in the U.S. as the U.K. Given America’s more laissez faire attitude toward screen violence, it just never had the ‘oomph’ here that had created such a stir over there. But now, audiences can once more judge for themselves what all the fuss was about, as Kino Lorber’s new to Blu release, via their alliance with StudioCanal has yielded a hi-def transfer that is mostly satisfying, with minor caveats to be discussed. First, the good news. In all but a handful of shots scattered throughout, the image here is well-defined, with razor-sharp detail, excellent contrast and tonality, and, a light smattering of film grain appearing indigenous to its source. Dissolves and fades suffer greatly with a sudden loss of detail and amplification of age-related artifacts – built-in dirt, scratches, tears, etc. that, otherwise, are non-existent in the body of this release. The other unforgivable sin here is gate weave. Much of the image teeters ever so slightly from side to side, likely due to sprocket damage. This ought to have been digitally corrected. Instead, it persists and, on occasion, can be very distracting, especially when viewed on monitors larger than 80-inches or during projection. The 1.0 DTS mono audio is presented at an adequate listening level with no hiss or pop. Extras are confined to an audio commentary by film historian, Tim Lucas and a few trailers promoting this, and, other Kino/Canal product. Bottom line: Brighton Rock is a solid thriller of the ‘little gem’ class. It deserves to be seen. This Blu-ray, while an improvement, is hardly perfect. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)