The Dangerous Edge of "Brighton Rock" (SPOILERS)




Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demi-rep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books - 
We watch while these in equilibrium keep 
The giddy line midway.

- Robert Browning, "Bishop Blougram’s Apology"


Rowan Joffe knew he had a lot to live up to.

The original adaptation of Graham Greene's classic gangster novel Brighton Rock starring a young Richard Attenborough (long, long before "Welcome to Jurassic Park") is regarded as one of the classic British film noirs in cinematic history. (You can watch the full film here - but we recommend reading the book first!)

The screenwriter of that adaptation - none other than Greene himself - was also behind the screenplay for The Third Man with Orson Welles, which is widely considered to be a landmark not just in noir, but in all of film. (Roger Ebert compared The Third Man to Casablanca, and said that "of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies" - and both Brighton Rock and The Third Man received scores of 100 on "Rotten Tomatoes.")

So in deciding to make another film version of Brighton Rock in 2010, Joffe admitted: "When I embarked on the project, I thought, even if the movie is successful in its own right, it will inevitably be compared to the classic...I went into it thinking this will probably be the first and last feature I ever make."

Before comparing and contrasting the films with each other and with the book, its important to understand a bit about Graham Greene, and his relationship to the development of film noir. In the wonderful survey of film noir, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption by Thomas Hibbs, we learn:
"On both text and screen, Greene's dramas conjure up a seedy world of infidelity, greed, and betrayal, a world that critics have labeled 'Greeneland.' Greene bristled at that nomenclature, for he thought it suggested the construction of a deranged fantasyland detached from real life... 
Greene intends for his own work to have an unsettling effect on audiences. He regularly uses the verb 'excite' to describe the first and indispensable task of the filmmaker. Excitement is achieved through some sort of gripping dramatic situation...after exciting the audience, Greene thought, the filmmaker could then display 'horror, suffering, and truth.' 
He loved the quotation from Robert Browning  about the 'dangerous edge of things.' [See the quote at the top of this article.] He commented that the 'dangerous edge of things remains what it always has been - the narrow boundary between loyalty and disloyalty, between fidelity and infidelity, the mind's contradictions, the paradox one carries within oneself. This is what men are made of.' These are precisely the paradoxical boundaries or tensions that provide creative sustenance to film noir."
Greene - who has three novels (including Brighton Rock) listed on Harold Bloom's "Western Canon" - knew that film could communicate truths about "the dangerous edge of things" in a way that was very different from literature, but no less important. He knew that films depend primarily on "picture and movement," and only secondarily on the spoken word. As Hibbs puts it, this often means that "the manner of framing the scene and the gestures of the actor unsettle our expectations about the ultimate frame of reference for human justice and orientation."

Greene also recognized cinema's mass appeal, noting that its "popularity is a virtue not to be rejected as vile."

When we read a book that's adapted into a movie, we tend to turn up our nose in that snobby way and proclaim: "it was good, but the book was better." When we say this, we usually misunderstand what film is what it isn't, and underestimate its power to communicate profound truths in its own way.

That being said, Graham's novel is one which exists so much in the lead characters' heads and hearts that many Greene fans would have to wonder whether much its power would be be lost in the transition to film.

First, what is the original novel about? What truths does it delve into?

The surface drama of the novel pivots on an apathetic seventeen year-old gangster named Pinkie, who is desperately trying to cover the tracks of a recent murder in order to grab the reigns of power in the mob world lurking beneath the Brighton boardwalk. To do this, he courts a simple-hearted waitress named Rose who knows a little too much, and dodges the inquiries of a decent, superstitious woman named Ida who smells something fishy.

But the real drama of the story unfolds in Pinkie's internal world, a foggy terrain of spiritual confusion, ambivalence, and torment. That internal world is presented early on in the story as a steel fortress of hate and darkness: Pinkie believes profoundly in the existence of hell, but shrugs off heaven with an apathetic "maybe"; pride and rage swell in him like a perpetual sickness, and alcohol, romance, friendship, and sex all disgust and further maroon him in his violent consciousness.

Even though his courtship with Rose starts out as a practical way of keeping her quiet, her sweet simplicity and child-like devotion begin to disturb and threaten him; soon, small traces of grace, love, and redemption are shot through his air-tight fortress, leaking the discomforting light of love into his thoughts.

Pinkie even goes so far as to marry Rose - again, initially as a way to keep her from testifying against him in court. But soon, he begins to entertain the creeping notion that "she was something which completed him." A "faint feeling of tenderness" that transcends his violent agenda swells in his heart, and he begins to feel as though "what was most evil in him needed her."

As Rose softens his heart, there arises too a "faint nostalgia, as if for something he had lost or forgotten or rejected" in his soul. Ancient hymns from his Catholic youth ("agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi") begin to haunt him, and in a close encounter with death, he even finds himself desperately trying to repent and pray for forgiveness.

No less tumultuous is Rose's spiritual struggle - she is torn between her Catholic identity, and her passionate and all-consuming love for Pinkie; between wanting to do the right thing, and wanting to do right by him.

In the end, Rose successfully fights off the "unconvincing insinuations" of "moral maxims," deciding that its better to follow Pinkie and be destroyed with him, than abandon him and be saved without him.

Pinkie also fights off what nags him - not laws, but love.

His final act is violent and selfish, and his ego, which has been literally hell-bent for seventeen years, furiously and finally rebels against the hiccup of heaven that has been drawing him out of himself. Flannery O'Connor once wisely said that "all human nature vigorously resists grace, because grace changes us and the change is painful." Pinkie, it seems, resisted the grace knocking on his heart with such ferocity as to close the door on it forever.

But the words of a priest in the final chapter of Brighton Rock turns everything inside out and challenges our assumptions: "you can't conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."

This is Greene's way of, as he put it, "instilling in the reader's mind a fundamental doubt of hell." We're left wondering if it's possible that Pinkie has somehow been saved by God through his strange, convoluted love for Rose. It doesn't seem likely at all - but the book puts a careful emphasis on our ignorance of God's ways.

So how do both movies, the 1947 classic and Joffe's new adaptation, fare in bringing this spiritual drama to screen?

Joffe says of Attenborough's performance as Pinkie in the 1947 version that through the "fidgety, nervous energy, the sense of cunning and manipulation...you can actually hear the cogs turning and crunching in Pinkie's devious mind. And that's a brilliant transposition to film from the novel, where you're actually able to read the literal description of those cogs turning."

Attenborough's performance as a villain is brilliant - but his robotic manner gives us no real indication that Pinkie's heart and mind are troubled by this violent upsurge of grace and love we've just described. For any moviegoer unfamiliar with the book, it might seem like Pinkie is unwavering in his deviousness and cold calculations, and undisturbed by any trace of hope or love - which, as we know, is not the case at all. (This might, of course, also rob the ending of its "dangerous edge," and its powerful ambiguity.)

Another common complaint about the original film is that it strips much of the story of its Catholic themes. Theologically-tinted conversations occur only twice - once in a brief discussion between Rose and Pinkie, and once in the final moments of the film. But Joffe notes that:

"[The film] was censored quite heavily by the British censor at the time...who felt that to be as explicitly Catholic as the screenplay and the film were in the context of telling the story of a vicious murderer would offend Catholics. So actually the original screenplay was far more imbued with Catholicism than the final movie ended up being...Some critics at the time, I think the Daily Mirror, said that it had basically been stripped of its Catholicism and Catholicism had simply become an adornment...I think Green rightly defended himself at the time, actually writing to the Daily Mirror."

Joffe jokes that he got "exactly the same criticism" for his adaptation; but his version does beef some of the original Catholic content back up, particularly in one scene which is truer to the book than the classic:


In the original take on this scene, Pinkie doesn't pray (or even mention praying). He also remains as stoic as ever during his meeting with Rose. Sam Riley's performance, on the other hand, is more human, and shows the audience that Pinkie is wrestling internally with the confusion and powerlessness that come with a budding sense of trust.

Joffe's adaptation - which situates the entire story in the 1960's instead of the 1930's - will make this important story much more accessible to the modern viewer who sees black and white film and instantly shuts down. But in the end, like Joffe must have expected, it falls short of the classic. It's a masterful film on its own; but the plot, cinematography, and character development of the original are, like many classic films, nearly perfect, and can't help but overshadow Joffe's achievements.

The greatest moment in both films, in my estimation, comes at the end. The endings - which are very similar to each other, and somewhat different from the book - drive home that central idea of Brighton Rock: that the mercy of God, which flows to and protects any and all who will take it, works with an "appalling strangeness" that we can never fully understand this side of grace, along the dangerous edge of things.

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