Bitter Candy

06.19.09

John Boutling, Brighton Rock, 1947, stills from a black-and-white film, 92 minutes. Left: Richard Attenborough. Right: Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh.


THE TITLE OF THE SUPERB British thriller Brighton Rock (1948) derives from a long, hard, sticky pink candy. With the word BRIGHTON imprinted across its length, the confection is a kind of civic talisman sold at the seafront of the southern English town that was once a mecca—part regal, part seedy—for London day-trippers. Graham Greene and the playwright Terrence Rattigan wrote the screenplay, though Greene said his original treatment was the basis for the film. It was based on his metaphysical 1938 novel, in which it’s implied that an informer is killed when a stick of the phallic candy is rammed down his throat.

Given the censorious climate of the time, Greene, the director, John Boulting, and his producer brother, Roy, naturally had to avoid the blatant double entendre, but the fraught sexuality of the novel crept into the film’s story. Repulsed by physical intimacy, the sadistic young gangster Pinky (Richard Attenborough) twitches with disgust when his besotted bride, Rose (Carol Marsh), embraces him.

Tense and puritanical, Pinky was probably influenced by the gynophobic priest and writer Baron Corvo and informed by a boy who tormented Greene at school. Having inherited a gang of inept racetrack “spivs,” Pinky murders the informer and spends the rest of the movie trying to avoid a blowsy middle-aged entertainer, Ida (Hermione Baddeley), who has pledged to bring him to justice. Learning that Rose, a waitress, stumbled on evidence that could convict him, Pinky marries her—they’re both Roman Catholics, both underage—and leads her toward hell. Although the movie depicts Brighton’s masses at play in the sun, its true world is that of film noir—of shadowy staircases, of a rain-swept pier at night, of a racetrack where thugs cut Pinky’s face and try to kill a harmless old member of his crew.

Brighton Rock was the first novel in which Greene wrestled with Catholicism. He achieved this through a dialectal examination of good and evil, represented by Rose and Pinky, on the one hand, and right-over-wrong, which steadfast Ida recognizes as the only moral truth, on the other. But the film censors weren’t prepared to allow even a subtextual morality play, and the script was “slashed to pieces,” Greene later complained, before production. The notion of “mortal sin” is present, however, and the petrified Rose uses that phrase when Pinky insists she commit a damning act.

The most famous change from the novel was the softened ending, which Greene wrote himself. “I am completely guilty,” he later said of the scene in which Rose is led to believe in Pinky’s love. There’s an ambiguity in that moment, as the farsighted viewer will perceive. Is Rose granted salvation, or is the “worst horror of all,” as Greene wrote in the book, merely suspended?

Brighton Rock opens at Film Forum in New York on Friday, June 19. For more information, click here.

Graham Fuller