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Brighton Rock (1947)


Main image of Brighton Rock (1947)
35mm, black and white, 92 mins
Directed byJohn Boulting
Production CompanyAssociated British Picture Corporation
Produced byRoy Boulting
Screenplay byGraham Greene, Terence Rattigan
From the novel byGraham Greene
Director of PhotographyHarry Waxman
MusicHans May

Cast: Richard Attenborough (Pinky Brown); Hermione Baddeley (Ida Arnold); William Hartnell (Darrow); Nigel Stock (Cubitt); Wylie Watson (Spicer); Carol Marsh (Rose)

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Late 1930s Brighton is run by vicious gangs, one of which is led by the teenage Pinkie Brown. After killing a man at the fairground, he tries to establish a watertight alibi - even if it means marrying a potential witness to prevent her giving evidence against him.

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When Brighton Rock (d. John Boulting, 1947) was retitled Young Scarface for its American release, the implication was clear. Here was a British thriller in the tradition of the American gangster movie, a genre dating back to such durable classics as Little Caesar (US, d. Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) and the original Scarface (US, d. Howard Hawks, 1932).

American gangster movies emerged out of the 1930s Depression, a time of power struggles between organised crime leaders vying for control of illicit or unobtainable commodities. The British tradition arose from the similar black marketeering and 'spiv' culture of wartime and post-war rationing and deprivation. Although the film's preface announces its location as a Brighton "in the years between the two wars... now happily no more", the clothes and mannerisms of Pinkie's gang place them very much within the familiar archetype of the wartime spiv.

Graham Greene's novel had been written in 1937, towards the end of the Depression. John Boulting was initially attracted by the way it so vividly evoked a sense of place: "The setting was not a backdrop; it was one of the characters." The Boultings' film uses its locations equally well, richly depicting the town's bar rooms, racetracks, caf├ęs and boarding houses, and benefiting from Harry Waxman's superb, atmospheric cinematography.

A contemporary Daily Mirror reviewer accused the film of "false, nasty, cheap sensationalism". However, most critics then and since, have warmed to the realism of the setting, noting how the homeliness of the tea shops and the seaside pierrot shows perfectly complements the menace of the gangsters' activities, their rivalry with other groups and internal conflicts.

It is a contrast also encapsulated in the two leading performances. Richard Attenborough and Hermione Baddeley had already appeared in a stage version of the novel, as had William Hartnell, who plays Pinkie's henchman Dallow. Attenborough's astonishing performance as perversely puritanical teenage gang leader Pinkie has an edgy intensity which is counter-pointed by Hermione Baddeley's warm and vibrant portrayal of touring player Ida.

Brighton Rock was not the only new and distinctive British crime movie to appear in the immediate post-war years, but the fine contributions of its participants, both behind and in front of the cameras, have made it the most memorable. It remains the most celebrated antecedent of later works like The Criminal (d. Joseph Losey, 1960), Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges, 1971) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (d. Guy Ritchie, 1998).

Tony Whitehead

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Video Clips
1. The chase (3:59)
2. Spicer's murder (3:56)
3. A loving message (1:54)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Noose (1948)
Addison, John (1920-1998)
Attenborough, Lord Richard (1923-)
Baddeley, Hermione (1906-86)
Boulting, John (1913-1985)
Greene, Graham (1904-1991)
Hartnell, William (1908-1975)
Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)
Taylor, Gilbert (1914-)
Watson, Wylie (1889-1966)
Waxman, Harry (1912-1984)
Welwyn Studios
Literary Adaptation
Social Problem Films
Teen Terrors On Film