Sometimes all it takes is one little gesture or a single line by an actor to really win me over with a film. In Brighton Rock, that moment occured when the anti-hero Pinkie Brown grabs a spider in the palm of his hand and starts plucking its legs off one by one as he says to himself ‘She loves me…she loves me not…‘ It summed up Pinkie perfectly and made me want to find out what happens to him in Brighton Rock, a British crime thriller based on a Graham Greene novel.
Set in the Sixties against a backdrop of youth riots and the mod movement, we are introduced to a sad little gang of wannabe criminals whose sole source of income appears to be extorting local shops. Rather unsuccessfully it would seem. They are hopelessly outmatched by the size and organisation of gambling tycoon Mr Colleoni who runs the majority of the crime syndicates in Brighton.
One night, a scuffle between the gangs turns deadly when someone gets their throat slit by a switchblade. The man killed was a mentor to Pinkie Brown, a loner who doesn’t fit in society and barely gets along with the people in his own gang. He retaliates by killing one of Colleoni’s men and assumes leadership of the few people remaining in his own gang. Unfortunately for Pinkie, there’s a complication. A girl, a shy waitress named Rose, has seen the altercation moments before the murder took place. She knows too much and steps must be taken to ensure she doesn’t talk.
What transpires is a dark and twisted romance between Pinkie and Rose. They are drawn together by a mutually nihilistic view on life. Pinkie is a sociopath who cares little for others and can barely function in everyday society without escalating into some kind of conflict. A permanent look of disdain is etched on his face. For him, a relationship with Rose is the key to ensuring his safety from the police. Although he is initially curious about Rose, he grows to hate her as much as he does everyone else.
For Rose, she has always been the odd one out, a plain and unremarkable woman with few friends or relationships. She finds a kindred spirit in Pinkie’s social alienation and willfully ignores his criminal background. To her, it is more important that she feels loved and alive.
Rose and Pinkie’s relationship becomes the centrepiece of Brighton Rock. It ends when either Pinkie permanently silences Rose or she becomes wise to him and rats him out to the cops. Tugging the strings on the relationship and pulling it in different directions are the cops, Rose’s sympathetic employer Ida, Mr Colleoni and Pinkie’s own gang members who are understandably nervous about Rose’s allegiance.
Brighton Rock is quite a challenging film at times and it gives away precious little about the characters and their motivations. Often we are unsure of who is manipulating who and there is a murky ambiguity as to who we are expected to empathise with. There is also an interesting undercurrent to the film that ties Pinkie and Rose’s beliefs to Roman Catholicism, which both frequently look to when justifying their own actions.
I really liked this film. Stylistically, I loved the first half of the film which is full of classic noir imagery – long shadows, trenchcoats, tough guys and even tougher dames. As the story progresses and becomes a character piece and ultimately an essay on faith, I became equally engaged with Rose’s plight.
The final scene in Brighton Rock is a bit of a cop out. There is supposed to be one final revelation revealing Pinkie’s motives but we are robbed of that moment. But does it make the ending any happier or sadder for Rose? Well, that’s for you to decide.