Published in 1938 'Brighton Rock' is perhaps Graham Greene's most
famous novel. Although it may not rank alongside his later post-war work, it
undoubtedly sticks in the mind and is many readers' first introduction to the
author. The main reason for the novel's continued pre-eminence, particularly
on school syllabuses, is probably due to the character of Pinkie, the teenage
gangster, and Greene's depiction of his hopelessness and fate.
The novel is set in the Brighton of the late 1930s, Greene himself
admitted that although the main idea of gang warfare in Brighton had some
basis in fact, he had invented the world of his novel in a manner not seen in
much of his other work. It is a dark, gloomy world, hidden away behind the
façade of the Palace Pier... a world those who only visit for the day never see. It is a world that Pinkie, the central character, has grown up in and
desperately wishes to control.
The narrative spins off the events of one Whitsun holiday, when Pinkie
and his gang murder Fred Hale, a man mysteriously and unwillingly caught up with them. Ida Arnold, a woman Fred met during his day in Brighton, believes that his death was not the natural death stated in the coroner's report, and begins to hunt Pinkie down. Greene describes Pinkie's desperate attempts to
secure his safety, including his relationship with Rose, a teenage waitress, inadvertently knowing the most important evidence in the case, who both Ida and Pinkie believe to be the key in achieving their aims.
Throughout his story Greene is most interested in the contrasts
between Ida and Pinkie, particularly in the way their spiritual beliefs affect
their views of the world. Graham Greene described Pinkie in the following terms:
'... The Pinkies are the real Peter Pans; doomed to be juvenile for a lifetime. They have something of a fallen angel about them, a morality which once belonged to another place. The outlaw of justice always keeps in his heart the sense of justice outraged... crimes have an excuse and yet he is pursued by the Others. The Others have committed worse crimes and flourish. The world is full of Others who wear the masks of Success, of a Happy Family. Whatever crime he may be driven to commit the child who doesn't grow up remains the great champion of justice.'
At the beginning of the novel Pinkie believes he can kill Hale with impunity. Although a catholic he believes he is already damned, and he plans his deed carefully enough to escape detection by the police... if not by Ida. In spite of this he has an ambition to achieve, if not to change. In contrast Ida lives very much from day to day, and has a limited concept of the spiritual, notably contacting the dead for advice on her own life. She pursues Pinkie in
a desire to gain justice for Hale, who she liked. Pinkie's view of justice is somewhat different, as outlined by Greene. He believes his situation in the world has damned him from birth, and feels it to be unjust that he has never had a glimpse of a heaven, even on earth.
In fact Greene gives Pinkie a chance of salvation in the form of Rose, who Pinkie marries to prevent her giving evidence against him. Towards the end of the novel Pinkie begins to feel urges of affection for Rose, and realises that his courtship of her did not fill him with such repugnance as he had believed. It is not Rose he hates, but rather her innocence and naivety that he scorns, and her ability to love without question and with complete acceptance of a persons' flaws that irritates him. Almost inevitably Pinkie rejects the beginnings of such emotions, regarding them as weak, disgusting
and a snare on his attempts to escape Ida.
The lasting impression of 'Brighton Rock' is one of bleakness. To the end Rose remains blinded by her love for Pinkie, refusing all Ida's attempts to save her. The reader, however, is aware of the heartbreaking discovery that awaits Rose if she ever listens to the record that Pinkie made for her. The end of Ida's crusade brings no joy and no peace, not even to herself. Nothing changes, and the metaphor Ida presented to Rose holds good in the lives of all the characters:
'It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll
still read Brighton. That's human nature.'
Directed by John Boulting in 1947, the movie of 'Brighton Rock' is one of the
great British crime films; a 'Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels' before graphic violence and language became commonplace on screen. The action and themes of the novel move seamlessly off the page and, although slight changes are made, and some characters and nuances are lost, it certainly stands as one of the best movies made from Greene's work.
Shot in black and white the film naturally shows the divides in the world Graham Greene had created. In the scenes depicting the Brighton seafront the glare of the sun leaps out of the screen presenting a world like that of a holiday brochure. Meanwhile, in Pinkie's Brighton, darkness and gloom threaten to overwhelm. The absence of colour perfectly compliments young Richard Attenborough's performance as Pinkie. Although neither
Attenborough or Carol Marsh1 quite look 15 years old, they
both look young enough to be lost in their world.
This is one of Attenborough's earliest major roles and he carries the film brilliantly. He maintains Pinkie's almost permanently calm expression right up till his last confused minutes, the only outward manifestation of his tension being the piece of string he regularly twists in his hands... often in a child's cats cradle. The rest of the cast supports him confidently particularly Hermione Baddely who captures Ida's appealing, and occasionally grating merry-woman-of-the-world character.
The film script was written by Greene2 and Terrence Rattigan and so the majority of the novel is translated into the film. Greene has no compunction in cutting down his cast of major characters to aid the viewer as they follow the story. Hence several of the background
characters fade even further into the distance, as only those closest to Pinkie's life are really featured. At the same time, the action of the film focuses much more on Pinkie's conflict with Ida which climaxes as Ida and Pinkie with Rose catch sight of each other on the pier. It is a moment where Ida can do nothing as she is performing in a show, but in which each party fully realises what it is dealing with.
The main alteration in the story however is the ending. Rather than the novel's bleak ending in which Rose may or may not be pregnant and the reader knows that she will go away and listen to Pinkie declaring his hatred of her, the ending of the film is curiously upbeat. Earlier in the film the message Pinkie recorded for Rose has been changed, he begins it:
'I know you want me to say I Love You'
before becoming abusive. In the end therefore we see
a confused Rose being comforted by a Nun before playing Pinkie's record, which has curiously recorded only his first sentence and then continues to repeat, 'I Love You, I Love You, I Love You.' This ending came from the playwright Rattigan, and Greene himself detested it. Indeed it does not particularly fit with the feeling of the rest of the film. Rose remains secure in her belief that Pinkie loved her and that Ida only tried to convince her otherwise because of Ida's dislike of Pinkie. The problem is that the final image somewhat negates the bleakness and hopelessness of Greene's world
which was conveyed so well in both the book and the rest of the film.