Rosaries and Razorblades: The Acrid Catholicism of BRIGHTON ROCK


Originally published on FilmStruck

The British and American cinema of the late 1940s, bristling as it did with noirish portent and psychological acuity, turned often to the remarkable literature of Graham Greene, that perennial master of the Catholic moral quandary framed by thriller conventions and a ruthless, frostbitten materialism. A few early crime and espionage thrillers lit the way — THIS GUN FOR HIRE (’42), MINISTRY OF FEAR (’43), CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (’45) — but the deluge was underway by 1947, whence THE MAN WITHIN (’47), BRIGHTON ROCK (’47), THE FUGITIVE (’47), THE THIRD MAN (’48), and THE FALLEN IDOL (’49) all rolled off the proverbial assembly line over the span of a few short years.

Greene’s novels, particularly the thrillers (or what he called ‘entertainments’), were endlessly amenable to screenplay translation — his prose never paused to explicate the interiority of his characters, but rather briskly alighted on themes of the utmost moral seriousness by way of unremitting present-tense action. It is through their resolve under duress, the objects they suggestively brandish, and their surplus of earthly sufferings that his characters come into focus as haggard spiritual wanderers, even as they moonlight as spies, fugitives, Hitchcockian ‘wrong men’ (one wonders at Greene’s hostility as a critic to the work of that other British grandmaster of the Catholic thriller).

The best directors of the era knew how to charge such commonplaces as abound in these stories with darkly thematic significance. Postwar anxiety had merged with prevailing trends in lighting and camerawork such that the camera eye now perceived both the world and its deranged, guilt-ridden shadow — a palpable dread had infected the popular cinema in the form of film noir. The best adaptations of Greene’s work hammer that ominous alloy, that unspeakable malaise, into a distinctly Catholic shape.

BRIGHTON ROCK (’47) — directed by John Boulting, produced by his brother Roy, and scripted by the eminent playwright Terence Rattigan — comes closest to the mark. THE FUGITIVE from the same year is a fatal misstep, with director John Ford piously prostrated before gleaming crucifixes and showy gestures of dewy-eyed reverence where the novel (titled The Power and the Glory) opted for something more haunting, a vitiated relic of the Catholic faith drifting forlornly through an earthbound purgatory. MINISTRY OF FEAR (’43) is a demented marvel of Langian excess, and the Carol Reed films twin masterworks of the filmic form. But BRIGHTON ROCK is so in lockstep with the source material (the film’s ending is the lone departure in obeisance to the censors, but it is in its own way a masterstroke of savage irony), so adept at incarnating visually Greene’s larger Catholic project, that the author’s vision of a broken, sin-suffused world fleetingly redeemed by imperfect emissaries of Godly grace finally attains cinematic expression.

The film opens with a scroll of text that notes the sharp contrast between Brighton’s seaside frivolity and the jagged latticework of criminal violence undergirding that frothy edifice. Snaking through the crowds of delighted revelers are members a local mob outfit led by seventeen-year-old Pinkie, played by Richard Attenborough in a dissonant key of pallid ferocity. One bright, cheerful day, Pinkie and his pals set their sights on a newspaperman in town for a local promotion who had formerly betrayed the gang in a story about the Brighton rackets. The murder, finally committed by Pinkie, is a crescendo of pure horror set adjacent to an upswell of carnivalesque excitement, with the line between the two eventually dissipating. Here is a fitting point to observe the visual mastery of the Boulting brothers, whose remarkably fluid camera creeps through a space until it lunges into foreboding close-up — of an incriminating object, of hands that fidget before they are summoned to slit a throat, of faces bent by chiaroscuro into luminous portraits of terror and rage.

It isn’t long after this opening bit of carnage that two women come to be recurring thorns in Pinkie’s side. One is a young waitress named Rose (played by Carol Marsh with a sweetly smiling susceptibility) whose pure-hearted naïveté is buttressed by her unwavering Catholicism and who, by an accident of chance, stands to fatally complicate Pinkie’s alibi. The other is a fixture of the surrounding amusements, an entertainer named Ida (Hermione Baddeley) who all but witnesses the killing and becomes a force of probing morality. But she is not Catholic. Officious, superstitious, and betokened by an ear-splitting cackle, she cares more for earthly justice than the great mystery of redemption. Rose, stupidly but sublimely, falls for Pinkie, while Ida hopes to wrest her away from his evil influence. The vile, seemingly sociopathic Pinkie then becomes a hopeless candidate for saving grace. Whether Rose’s love is exerted in vain is the operative spiritual question.

The extant writing on BRIGHTON ROCK has tended to single out Attenborough’s performance for acclaim. And he is magnificent, the consummate boy cretin, gaunt and pudgy, nervous with women but calm and collected when he kills. He all but perspires of violence. But the rest of the cast make for equally compelling collaborators in the drama. And I suspect the Boulting brothers are in need of serious auteurist resuscitation. For negotiating Greene’s pained Catholicism in cinematic terms, I imagine not even Alfred Hitchcock could have done a better job. Simply study their evocative way with the torpid water off the Brighton coast — a restorative elixir for the sunbathing tourist, and a place where bodies are buried.