Few things are quite as pleasurable as viewing the machinations of an out-and-out psychopath from the safety of one’s living room. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, Amy Elliott Dunne in Gone Girl—I’d hate to cross paths with any of them in real life, but watching them run circles around normal people in the context of a thoroughly fictional story provides the kind of vicarious thrill that just can’t be beat. With his portrayal of Pinky Brown, a teenage killer with a talent for manipulation and no conscience whatsoever, Richard Attenborough created one of the most memorable characters of this type ever recorded on film.
Pinky is the antihero of John Boulting’s 1948 film Brighton Rock, based on a novel of the same name by Graham Greene. The story takes place in 1935 amidst the somewhat tawdry pleasures on offer in the British seaside resort of Brighton. Pinky learns that the reporter, Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), who wrote a story that resulted in the death of one of members of his criminal gang, will be in Brighton that very day as part of a newspaper promotion (based on the real-life “Lobby Lud” promotions of the Westminster Gazette). Fred learns that the gang is on to him, and desperately tries to evade them, in the process befriending musical hall performer Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley, who nearly steals the show from Attenborough).
Fred is quickly dispatched by Pinky, and the police rule his death a suicide. Ida’s not convinced, however, and begins her own investigation. Meanwhile, Pinky sets out to remove any traces of his gang’s involvement in Fred’s death, which leads him to marry a young waitress (played with almost unbelievable innocence by Carol Marsh) so she can’t testify against him in court, then plans to kill her. There’s also some conflict with a rival gang leader, Colleoni (Charles Goldner), although nothing (thank goodness) like the elaborate mods vs. rockers set piece in the 2010 version of this story.
Much of Brighton Rock was shot on location, sometimes using hidden cameras, and cinematographer Harry Waxman captures the desperate grittiness of a resort town during the Great Depression. There’s nothing glamorous about Pinky and his gang—they’re small-time hoods living in cheap hotel rooms—and Pinkie is gratuitously cruel (there’s a famous incident involving a phonograph record that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling) when he’s not being purely cold-blooded. Although Brighton Rock was not popular with critics when first released in the U.K.—World War II had ended only two years prior, and the scenes of poverty and violence were not appreciated by some—audiences loved it, and it has since been recognized not only as a classic of Brit Noir, but also as one of the top British films of all time. | Sarah Boslaugh
Brighton Rock is distributed on Blu-ray and digitally by Kino Lorber. The picture and sound are both great, and the Blu-ray comes with one significant extra, an audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas.