Vintage British crime thriller Brighton Rock features a chilling turn from Richard Attenborough as a brutal teenage racketeer.

Brighton Rock takes the US noir thriller formula and blends it with a striking vision of the British seaside town in the 1930s. This isn’t the place of innocent days out, but rather “another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums.”

Arriving in town on a publicity stunt is newspaper journalist ‘Kolley Kibber’. Kibber – actually Fred Hale (Wheatley) – had been responsible the death of Brighton gang leader Kite. When the gang’s dangerous new leader, a 17-year-old Pinkie Brown (Attenborough), gets wind of Fred’s visit, the journalist panics. Brown and his mob pursue him. Ruthlessly, Pinkie kills Fred, pushing him from the pier.

Driven by paranoia, a hunger for power and a share of deranged Catholic self-loathing, the psychotic Pinkie will go to any lengths to cover his tracks. He even gets involved with a dangerous game with Brighton’s big-time mobster, Colleoni (Goldner).

Pinkie plans to marry a witness, Rose (Marsh), who could give the game away, wooing the naive young girl with his edgy charms, “you’re sensitive, like me”. He has no qualms about dishing out retribution to members of his gang who he considers weak, like aging, moral Spicer (Watson), who he ominousl tells “You go to sleep Spicey. Don’t worry, I’ll fix everything”. Meanwhile, Ida (Baddeley), a self-possessed entertainer who had spent a brief time with the murdered man, refuses to accept the police explanation of his death and sets about investigating.

Adapted by Terrence Rattigan and Graham Greene from the latter’s own novel, the Boulting brothers’ Brighton Rock is a brilliantly constructed masterpiece, evocatively set amid the lurid attractions and unfamiliar, grim backstreets of a pre-war English seaside resort.

Replete with dialogue inflected by US gangster-speak (“Take it easy Fred. You’re going for a walk, see.”) as well as more homegrown concerns, the film is given weight by Greene’s prerequisite concerns with Catholicism. Pinkie is a fallen Catholic, while the profoundly naive Rose is devout, troubled by the sins her dedication to Pinkie require of her, but so devoted she complies with his demands (“Oh Pinkie, I don’t care what you’ve done.”)

The contrast of death and religion with seaside recreation is distinctive and the supporting cast is excellent. Hartnell plays Pinkie’s henchman, clad in an oddly sinister checked suit; 16 years later he’d play the amiable, bumbling first ‘Dr Who’. Baddeley’s Ida is also a fascinating charcter, a unique female variaton on the US model of the tenacious, street-wise investigator. But what is most memorable about the film is Attenborough’s fresh-face, unblinking portrayal of the ‘Young Scarface’ (the US title, but also literally true as Pinkie gets iconically slashed by one of Colleoni’s boys). Irredeemably evil, yet equally pathetic, Attenborough’s villain scores the memory as deeply as Paul Muni in Scarface or Cagney in White Heat.

Richard Attenborough played Pinkie Brown on the stage in London’s West End. After three years in the Royal Air Force, he reprised the role for the film, aged 24.

Those atheists don’t know nothing – of course there’s a Hell. Flames. Damnation. Torments. – Pinkie (Richard Attenborough).

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown
Hermione Baddeley as Ida Arnold
William Hartnell as Dallow
Nigel Stock as Cubitt
Wylie Watson as Spicer
Carol Marsh as Rose Brown
Harcourt Williams as Prewitt
Virginia Winter as Judy
Reginald Purdell as Frank
George Carney as Phil Corkery
Charles Goldner as Colleoni
Alan Wheatley as Fred Hale
Lina Barrie as Molly
Joan Sterndale-Bennett as Delia
Harry Ross as Brewer
Campbell Copelin as Police Inspector
Marianne Stone as Waitress
Norman Watson as Racecourse Evangelist
Constance Smith as Singer (uncredited)
Pamela Cundell as Pierrot Artiste

Writers: Graham Greene, Terence Rattigan
Director: John Boulting
Producer: Roy Boulting
Photographer: Harry Waxman
Composer: Hans May

UK | 92 minutes | 1948