UK / Associated British / 92 minutes / 1947 Filmed in black and white
Writers: Graham Greene, Terence Rattigan (based on the novel by Graham Greene) / Music: Hans May / Cinematography: Harry Waxman / Producer: Roy Boulting / Director: John Boulting
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh, Nigel Stock
US title: Young Scarface
John Boulting’s portrayal of gangland Britain in the 1930s shocked contemporary audiences. When plans were first unveiled to make a film of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock , the adaptation was to be written by Terence Rattigan and directed by Anthony Asquith. Neither man was particularly suitable for Graham Greene’s compelling story about a psychopath and his racecourse cronies and the project eventually fell to the Boulting Brothers, who immediately gave Greene the script to rewrite. Set between the wars, the film starts with a dramatic chase through the town of Brighton, with Pinkie’s gang in hot pursuit of a journalist, Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), whom they blame for the death of a colleague. The dramatic chase concludes in a ghost machine ride on the pier, where the 17-year-old Pinkie murders Hale.
The gang leader then has to make sure that his gang can’t be connected to the murder and has to retrieve one of the journalist’s cards, part of his paper’s promotions, from a café in the town. While there, he meets a beautiful but naive young waitress, Rose (Carol Marsh), and strikes up a relationship with her in a bid to keep her quiet. Although the police don’t regard Hale’s death as suspicious, a touring singer, Ida (Hermione Baddeley), who’d met the journalist only hours before his death, isn’t so sure and starts her own investigations.
Pinkie, meanwhile, decides to deal with one of his errant henchmen (Wylie Watson), devising an elaborate plan to have him killed on Brighton racecourse. With the delinquent’s behaviour becoming increasingly erratic, however, things don’t go according to plan and as the police close in, Pinkie and Rose marry (to prevent her giving evidence against her husband) but even so, he’s not convinced of her silence and, on the resort’s famous pier, plans to silence her for ever.
Richard Attenborough had previously played the role of Pinkie on stage and, despite the author’s initial misgivings, recreated the character on film, delivering, as Sight and Sound commented, “an exceptional performance.” In those days a delinquent like Pinkie was a macabre novelty in British films, Attenborough later observed, and he had to visit race tracks in order to study the behaviour of the young spivs.
“No woman will want to see it,” The Daily Mirror wrote and the film was initially banned in liberal countries such as Holland and Sweden due to its “sadistic tendencies”. Now, however, Brighton Rock is recognised as a taut psychological thriller containing some “glorious set pieces,” (Sight and Sound ) and in the early 2000s came 15th in the BFI’s poll to find the best British film of the century.