Last year, as I walked out of the theater after a showing of the 1947 gangster flick Brighton Rock, one of the men behind me had a question for his companion. “There was a lot of,” and he tried to put it delicately, “Catholic stuff in that. I mean…is that normal?”
Both the 1947 film and this year’s remake are adaptations of a Graham Greene novel, so while Catholicism might be expected, “normal” doesn’t really enter into it. Unfortunately, the new one strips out the elements that make the story work. The old movie offered a chance to watch Richard Attenborough really get his fangs into the role of boyishly lugubrious gangster Pinkie Brown. (An alternate American title was Young Scarface.) The new adaptation offers, primarily, a lesson in how not to translate a dark religious vision for contemporary moviegoers.
There are three main problems with the new movie.
The first problem is the girl. Pinkie woos his girl in order to ensure her loyalty and silence. She follows him to the brink of self-destruction, his enthusiastic victim. This is a tough role for the best actress, and neither movie adaptation quite made it work. Rose, the mousy martyr, is spindled cardboard. Neither the earlier nor the contemporary script give their actresses anything to do but blow hard on the penny slide-whistle of their character; both Carol Marsh and Andrea Riseborough do their best with it.
The second problem is the boy. Attenborough made a ferocious, layered character, a sort of black hole of charisma. He seemed occasionally, fleetingly to long for the goodness or salvation he consistently and knowingly rejected. Watching him watch Rose, you could think of the line from the Letter of James: “The demons themselves believe, and tremble.”
But this description should suggest that an actor of Attenborough’s caliber is needed to make Pinkie something more than just another pretty, sad bad boy. Sam Riley is not good enough, at least not here. As he says that he’s “a Roman” like Rose, who believes in Hell but gives miracles and Heaven a definite “maybe,” the Catholic elements seem like trappings — Anne Rice with extortionists instead of vampires, not Gothic but goth. Attenborough’s Pinkie came across as a sociopath whose surface sometimes cracked open to reveal oily black veins of confused yearning. Without that complexity, the character is just another gangster cliché with an inexplicable interest in mortal sin.
And the third, most interesting problem is the new movie’s decision to streamline the story’s kick-start, in which Pinkie’s gang is after a small-time newspaperman who betrayed their former leader. The newspaperman, Fred Hale, has been assigned the role of “Kolley Kibber,” part of a human scavenger hunt to get publicity for the paper: He has to spend all day wandering the decrepit seaside town of Brighton, leaving calling cards in public places, and if anyone recognizes him they win a cash prize. Once he realizes that if he’s spotted he’ll be killed by Pinkie’s gang, Brighton becomes a nightmare carnival, with the audience sharing in Hale’s fear and anxiety as every shadow holds menace. This opening segment becomes more than an everyday murder: Its tone, in the 1947 Greene-scripted screenplay, forces the audience into a weird and anxious noir world in which we — not only like Hale but like Pinkie — are outsiders frantically trying to get our bearings.
The new version has a much more straightforward structure. Kolley Kibber isn’t mentioned, and Hale’s death is basically the MacGuffin, a fungible excuse for the action. There’s a side plot in which Hale’s friends, played by Helen Mirren and John Hurt, figure out that Pinkie is a killer and try to save Rose from his cobra charms, but this subplot doesn’t often interweave with the main plot. (Mirren and Hurt aren’t at their best here, over-restrained and limited by their marginality to the lovers’ drama.) The period setting has been recast, with 1960s mods-and-rockers warfare replacing the seedy 1930s. The Brighton setting is used for some obvious lines about generational warfare — a theme that is mentioned more than actually developed — and a demi-chaotic gang fight scene, but it never becomes the Phantasmagoria by the Sea of either the novel or the earlier film version. If the original Brighton Rock was noir with a horror edge, a “Little Red Riding Hood runs away with the wolf” story spelled out in tabloid headlines, the new movie aspires to be a prestige period drama.
But this change in genre makes the movie fizzle. No longer stylized and weird enough to be noir, it aims for drama and hits kitchen-sink melodrama.
The story has two endings. In all three versions, Rose badgers Pinkie into making a record of his voice for her, but since they don’t have a record player she’s only able to hear it after his death. In the novel, she gets to hear the whole thing — in which he berates her and says he wishes she would “go home forever” and leave him alone. Her love and hope, however foolish, are cruelly betrayed. In both movie versions (after intervention by the 1940s censors, who found the novel’s ending too grim) the record sticks, so all she can hear is the beginning: “You’ve asked me to make a recording of my voice. You want me to say I love you… I love you… I love you….”
Audiences seem to have widely varied reactions to this ending in the Attenborough film. Many people take it as candy-coating the bleak novel. I thought it made the ending even darker: To my mind, the stuttering record is partly gallows humor, grotesque irony. It provided Rose with comfort that the audience knows to be false. She got what she wanted, but not what was true.
And the record, combined with Attenborough’s performance, makes Pinkie’s choices much more knowing and terrible. The record serves as a reminder to the audience that there were moments when Pinkie, too, seemed to stutter on the brink of genuine love or repentance, but he always quickly sprang back into his knife-wielding crouch.
Nonetheless, this ending needs a lot of preparation if it’s going to work at all. The 1947 movie was lurid enough to stand up under some symbolic contrivance; a noir world isn’t a naturalistic one, so why not allow for a couple mangled miracles?
When I saw the new version, which keeps the “I love you… I love you” ending, people groaned with laughter in the theater. The movie had done nothing to prepare us for any kind of miracle, let alone a ferociously mordant one. The nightmare carnival just looks tacky in plain daylight.
Greene’s religious vision is lurid, a Spanish crucifix rather than a well-lit, white clapboard church. In Brighton Rock, the smallest gestures are charged with hidden meaning and threat — the title of the movie comes from the name of a popular candy, which is ultimately used as a weapon. This vision of the everyday world as purgatory is part of how Greene, and the 1947 filmmakers, gots the audience to accept that the choices of two hard-luck, foolish kids could lead to consequences as gigantic as Heaven and Hell. When the story is played straight, it starts to look soap-operatic rather than operatic, and so the Christian drama of salvation is reduced to angsty teens and plot contrivances.