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 Green'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 well, richly depicting the town's bar rooms, racetracks, cafes' 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 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, Get Carter and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN
THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
Volume 14, No.168, December 1947, pages 170-1
BRIGHTON ROCK (1947)
Drama. Placards announce the arrival in Brighton of Kolley Kibber, journalist out on a circulation stunt. He is recognised by a gang led by Pinkie Brown, a 17-year-old boy, as being responsible for the death of Kite, the gang's former leader, and Pinkie resolves to kill Kolley. Kolley disappears, and later, when his body is washed ashore, the faked verdict at the inquest is "heart failure". Pinkie provides himself with an alibi which forces him to marry Rose, a waitress, who has evidence that would destroy it. Ida Arnold, a friend of Kolley's, never satisfied with the verdict on him, decides to take a hand. The police are slow to act, but Ida saves Rose just as Pinkie has staged a suicide pact and Pinkie falls into the sea. Rose is sent to a convent with her faith in the worthless Pinkie still unimpaired.
Brighton Rock is disappointing and difficult to follow. Those who have not read the book will be completely at sea, and those who have will be irritated at the tricks played with a superb story. One requires a knowledge of race-gang language to understand what the characters are talking about. The photography, especially in the latter half, is good, but there is not enough Brighton to be seen. It is well acted. Richard Attenborough, as Pinkie, is all Pinkie should be, ruthless, craven, sinister and sadistic, and he looks and lives the part. Carol Marsh, a new find, is a restrained Rose, and Hermione Baddeley, as always, is fruity, common and kind.