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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Co-Pick of the Week: New. Brighton Rock (Joffe); Brighton Rock (Boulting)

Brighton Rock 2010 (Three Stars)
U.K.: Rowan Joffe, 2010 (IFC)
Brighton Rock 1947 (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.: John Boulting, 1947 (Amazon Instant Video) 
Some books and some cities were born to be filmed.  Some men were born to kill. Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock is an example of the former: one of the greatest and most pungently human and scary of all British crime thrillers. And the book’s  central character, teenage Brighton gangster/killer Pinkie Brown, is one of the latter, a great heartless evil Greene character. Pinkie is a teenaged gangster who carries a vial of acid to hurl into faces he doesnt like, a knife to carve them up, big wounded eyes to intimidate the men and seduce the women whom he hates, and a heart as black as the Brighton night through which he prowls like a  predatory cat with a scarred face, while waves crash on the beach, and the devils below wait for their meal in Hell.
The setting is Brighton, a bustling, brightly appointed but slightly tawdry coastal vacation spot where Pinkie and his slightly threadbare gang are embroiled in a war with the rival (and more prosperous) “protection” mob run by the natty, sinister Colleoni. The characters are a typical noir dramatis personae: crooks, cops, and the hapless citizens who get caught between them. The book is a classic — a better crime novel than anything Cain or Chandler or Hammett or McCoy or Himes, or Greene himself, ever wrote, except maybe for Greene’s original masterpiece This Gun for Hire (A Gun for Sale). The 1947 film that the Boulting brothers (John and Roy) made from the novel “Brighton Rock,” co-scripted by Greene himself, and starring the young Richard Attenborough as the pathological Pinkie Brown,  is deservedly regarded as an English film noir gem.
It is. The author in his book and later the filmmaking team on their picture,  handle it all so expertly that you tend to recall Greene’s Brighton and its colorful denizens, as well as places you’ve actually visited. Read the book or watch the 1947 movie and you can smell the sea air and salty fish and chips, hear the hubbub of the beach crowd on the boardwalk and pier, and sense the mounting fear and desperation that keeps whipping at their/our faces like a foul wind that’s got our number and won’t quit.
Both the novel and the movie have stronger characters, better dialogue, sharper social detail and a richer and more gripping narrative than most serious novels — including most of Greene’s. So why did writer-director Rowan Joffe (who scripted the chic Euro-thriller The American for star George Clooney), remake Brighton Rock?  One could argue, and many have, that it was a waste of time, that when director John Boulting and his twin brother, producer Roy Boulting, and screenwriter Greene and star Dickie Attenborough made the film in 1947 that it stayed made and shouldnt have been touched again. But I don’t think so. You can always revisit a true classic, and this one was eminently worth revisiting.
 Both films are full of seething atmosphere, razor-sharp dialogue and icy-fingered suspense, and both films have good deep casts.  Besides Sam Riley as an older-looking and  more phlegmatic  Pinkie, with his pretty dead-eyed face, Joffe’s version has Helen Mirren, wonderful in Hermone Baddeley’s old role as Pinkie’s feisty tea shop nemesis Ida, Andy Serkis as the slick mob man Colleoni, Sean Harris as the doomed Fred Hale, who murder triggers the pier battles; Phil Davis (of Mike Leigh’s informal troupe) as Pinkie’s gangfellow Spicer; John Hurt (a perfect Graham Greene actor) as the crusty, Ida-infatuated Corkery;  and, as Pinkie’s credulous, trusting, adoring girlfriend Rose — who is one of Ida’s waitresses and a witness to the fatal puruit of Fred by Pinkie (who marries her to shut her up) — there’s  the remarkable young actress Andrea Riseborough, who both cracks your heart and scares you to death.
Though the new Brighton Rock got many bad or mixed reviews, and a few sneering ones, I think it was a very good film. There were few superior ensemble casts  this year, playing better  roles, or working from a finer literary source. (John le Carre may have been a better spy than Greene, but he wasn’t a better writer.)
“Brighton Rock,” published in 1938, was set in the ’30s; Joffe resets his movie in 1964, during the height of the Mods and Rockers wars in Brighton, and I only wish he’d used more of vintage ’64 British and American pop singers and rockers. (Doris Day and The Dave Clark Five are about all we hear.) But there’s another reason to remake Brighton Rock, and to rewatch it, or to watch it for the frst time. The 1947 film is shot on location in good realistic black and white. But the 2010 version is shot in sinuous, evocative color by John Mathieson (a Ridley Scott cinematographer) in a lyrical style full of virtuoso camera moves and eye-filling compositions. You couldn’t call the Boulting brothers’ Brighton Rock a beautiful-looking film, but you could say that of many scenes in Joffe’s picture, which like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City captures the sleazy poetry of a boardwalk. That beauty puts a weird edge on the danger. 
At the center of the storm is Pinkie, one of the most thoroughly evil villains in all of British crime literature and crime cinema — damned, in Greene’s famously Catholic eyes, not because he doesn’t believe in God and Heaven (and Hell) but because he does, as poor Rose does too. (That’s why Rose’s unshakable love for Pinkie is so scary.)   Pinkie, who has not a visible drop of human kindness, is able to bully the older men like Spicer in the rest of the mob (after Kite is killed by Fred) by sheer force of perosnality, by that sense of mobster’s entitlement that Edward G. Robinson had in Little Caesar and James Cagney in The Public Enemy and Paul Muni in Scarface. (The original American title for the 1947 Brighton Rock was Young Scarface.) Pinkie, with his bedroom eyes and crooked face, is the very personification of youthful amorality, cold narcissism and sexy brutality running amok.
It’s true that Riley is no Dickie Attenborough. But it’s also true that there will never be another Dickie Attenborough, never another Pinkie as good or evil as his. But you coud say that of Robinson, Cagney and Muni as well. Should actors stop playing Stanley Kowalski because Brando got there first and nailed the part?
One last word.  I’ve always thought that the 1947 movie of Brighton Rock was hurt by the film’s changed ending: by the way the script alters the way that Rose hears, at the end, the keepsake record that Pinkie has left her. The book has her about to hear what the sadistic Pinkie actually said; the movie uses the needle-in-groove repeated phrase “I love you” to spare her.  But it was Greene who rewrote the script. Did he make that change too?
Fascinatingly, Joffe’s version uses the same skipping-record climax as well. But it doesn’t really matter because then, under the credits, Joffe runs one of the most terrifying pop songs ever recorded, Richard Hawley’s hanged-man anthem “There’s A Storm A-Comin’,” with its dirge-like chorus and funereal beat and moaning strings. As you listen to it, you can almost see Pinkie’s soul — and maybe Rose’s too — sink down to whaever Hell lies below Brighton.
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon