Movies We Like
It bugs me when I go to see an old film on the big screen and people laugh at what they find to be anachronistic or hokey. Aside from it being disrespectful it also strikes me as an incredibly pretentious thing to do. I remember having a screening of Night of the Hunter completely ruined when a trio of teenage dorks insisted on laughing at every other line of dialogue in the film as if they were so much cooler than everyone on screen. Who in their right mind could think they were cooler than Robert Mitchum?! We assume that we must be somehow more evolved than generations before us but, with few exceptions, evidence to the contrary abounds. It can be amusing to note how filmmakers had to contort their films to fit the narrow confines of acceptability as defined by the Production Code, but to insistently laugh with smug satisfaction at every little thing in an old film that strikes our ears as the least bit foreign is to loudly and desperately proclaim one’s own insecurities. The laughing-at-old-films-to-make-yourself-look-smart phenomenon is so all prevailing that I barely notice it anymore except by its absence. This happened when I saw Brighton Rock at the New Beverly here in L.A. this past weekend. It is one of the funniest, blackest noirs ever and the audience laughed at what was meant to be funny and that was enough. It was revelatory to experience a film from 1947 as it was meant to be seen—at a theater with an audience that was completely seduced into unselfconscious enjoyment by the film’s dark, spiky humor. Brighton Rock was a novel before it was a movie and it remains probably my favorite novel of all time. Graham Greene stuck to a completely English milieu for this early gangster story set in the seaside town of Brighton with its pleasure piers and seedy amusements. A teenage boy with an acne problem and a very bad temper named Pinkie is the leader of a low rent gang of hoods. Pinkie and his middle aged cohorts kill a newspaper man from London who is working in Brighton for the day because of unfinished business related to his nefarious extracurricular activities. The murder scene is different from how it plays out in the book but it’s the rare example of a movie adaptation with inventive visuals that manage to artfully elaborate on the themes of the book even when straying from the book’s plot. Pinkie is evil incarnate. He wears a cheap suit and carries a razor blade as a weapon and only seems happy when terrifying other people. He is a virgin and is repulsed by sex but plagued by self doubt over his lack of life experience. When a young waitress named Rose becomes a potential liability for Pinkie’s gang he sets out to court her with the plan of marrying her so that she can’t testify against him. He seems relieved when he sees a rosary in her purse and his eyes light up as he talks about the certainty of eternal damnation and torment even as he seems more skeptical about the possibility of any alternative.
As previously mentioned, Brighton Rock is one of the great film noir dark comedies and in Pinkie it has one of the great villains of cinema and in Ida Arnold, one of the most absurd protagonists. Ida is a classic British creation—a soft-around-the-edges kind of gal with a hearty laugh. When she’s not working on her "entertainment" career she’s usually found at the pub drinking port and singing sentimental old music hall songs with her randomly assembled group of male friends. Ida met Fred just before he died and she is obsessed with finding out what happened to him. Soon Ida is causing problems for Pinkie as her rambling investigation threatens to ensnare him.
The thing I love most about Brighton Rock is the aforementioned pitch black quality of the comedy. Pinkie is a fascinating study in malice but there’s a tragedy to him. He’s evil but he’s not very good at what he does for a living and his sexual hang-ups humanize him even more. Still he is not a nice person and Ida, for all of her good natured blather, knows she has to get through to Rose before it’s too late.
It’s hard for a British noir to stand up to the American entries in the canon primarily because film noir is such an American style. But Brighton Rock bests many of the greatest American films noir because it’s just slightly darker and harder and funnier than the rest. Graham Greene reveled in moral contradictions—the virginal murderer, the grotesquely sentimental avenger. He expanded on these themes in his later novels when his scope widened to include far more powerful people and more exotic settings than a bunch of small time hoods in Brighton. Still, Brighton Rock remains for me a perfect novel and a perfect film. The fact that each succeeds for slightly different reasons leads me to believe that a movie adaptation of a novel isn’t a concept to dread right off the bat.