Thursday, August 11, 2011

Brighton Rocks

Having just finished Greene's gripping 1938 novel, I managed to watch both movie adaptations on the overnight bus up here from Lima.

Each was (obviously) made after the Second World War, which makes them, for me at least, inherently a little less interesting than later interpretations. For Brighton Rock is one of those works which, almost certainly unknowingly, delivers a snapshot of a world on the edge of the abyss. It's final words seem almost prophetic in this context, as it leaves Rose wandering off towards 'the greatest horror of all'.

My grandfather was a cine enthusiast and shot a number of otherwise trivial home movies (in colour) during a family holiday in the South of France in the same year Brighton Rock was published. I have them on a VHS conversion and naturally there is now something poignant about watching people enjoying simple pleasures in a place that would soon be off-limits to pleasure-seekers.

There's a rather droll textual forward to the 1947 film which reassures viewers that the violent Brighton underworld and the slums that acted as its incubator no longer exist. (Did the Germans bomb them to oblivion?) Meanwhile Joffe has controversially shifted the chronology of his update forwards into the 60s when social order was crumbling once again, this time as rival youth subcultures asserted their ascendency and the right to duff each other up. It's an interesting gambit, and one which forces Joffe to ditch some of the key plot set-ups from the novel, such as Fred Hale's alter ego Kolley Kibber and the newspaper treasure hunt.

The 23-year-old Dickie Attenborough is quite remarkable as the teen sociopath Pinkie in the Boulting brothers' film. It makes you wonder a bit about the ingratiating lovie he appears to have become in his dotage. The essence of this character is surely his repressed inner life, which manifests itself as an over-expressive tendency in the arena of opportunistic violence. Hard as it is to do more than suggest this turmoil on screen, Attenborough's personification seems to glow with this deadly juxtaposition of cockiness and elemental fear.

Sam Riley's Pinkie is less remarkable, rather more like a junior incarnation of paranoid gangster types we have grown accustomed to on our screens. (Note that the 1947 film reached American cinemas as Young Scarface!)
The script does however give a bit more support by implication to the notion that there was something not quite right about Pinkie's relationship with the deceased leader Kite. And we do get the impression that this Pinkie is not quite sure where he falls on the line dividing sympathy and antipathy for the poor waitress, whereas Attenborough gave us very few hints of warmth to work with.

It's a rather one-note performance, but the same cannot be said of his foil here, Andrea Riseborough's Rose, as complex and nuanced as the late Carol Marsh's version was a straightforward portrait of wide-eyed innocence. (Marsh reminded me a bit of rising British starlet Carey Mulligan. A bit too pretty for the role really.)

Anyway, I didn't mind the reduced emphasis on Pinkie's sordid internal dialogue, in part because it's one part of the novel that stretched credibility for me. Greene always tests my tolerance for thickly laid-on Catholic guilt

The character which wasn't pitched right in either film, but certainly not in the 2010 remake is that of Ida Arnold. Hermione Baddeley had her as a kind of salt-of-the-earth proletarian archetype, whereas Helen Mirren plays her as a bit of a cold fish, which is oh so wrong from the point of view of Greene's take on the underlying theological message. Arnold is an ageing bad girl, not far enough past her sell-by date to stop posing a threat to other people's marriages. In the context of this story

For Ida's quest to be meaningful Fred Hale's end needs to be something we regret. It doesn't help Joffe's film at all that he has cast the bloke who plays the assassin in The Borgias as Hale and tossed aside all Greene's ambiguity about the journalist's role in the demise of Kite. Indeed, here Hale is just another gangland thug. Boulting in contrast, insisted that Hale's mistake was to write too candid an article about slot machines and Kite's intrusion into this business.

Perhaps to take our mind off his substantial alterations (Ida is now the manager of Snow's and Corkery not just her would-be lover but also the bookie that gets 'carved' by Pinkie and Dallow, while dodgy solicitor has been expunged completely) it would seem that Joffe decided to put back into his narrative all the things that Greene and Rattigan left out of their own screenplay in 1947. (Back, to good effect is the bottle of vitriol and the cliff-side denouement and less effectively perhaps, Rose's father.)

Interestingly Joffe's screenplay imitates the twist from the last scene of Boulting's film. I have to say, I do wonder whether it was Graham Greene or Terence Rattigan who thought that one up. In a sense it makes for a 'better' ending than the novel provided, but from the perspective of the author's scathing examination his faith it's a bit of a cop out, zooming in on a crucifix which, we are given to conclude, symbolises a universe where the wellbeing of the innocent is taken into consideration. Whatever happened to 'the greatest horror of all'? Unfilmable, one presumes.

PS: Having just finished tracking through the debate about the 'highest' genre in art in Public Enemies I think it worth noting that Boulting's movie (as Joffe's surely will one day quite soon) feels dated in a way that the novel itself simply doesn't.

Speaking of genres, the 1947 film clearly fits within the noir tradition. In contrast last year's rehash shows its awareness of the Hitchcockian tradition that was then still a decade away.

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