Just look at the talent involved. Firstly, there is the script, co-written by Greene himself with that other expert on disgust, playwright Terence Rattigan. As tightly structured as a Greek tragedy, it’s littered with the sort of surreal non sequiturs which would become the hallmark of Harold Pinter a decade later.
After the botched inquest, travelling entertainer Ida (whose singing pierrot show is also something of a crime) bemoans that the dead newspaperman had no friends or relations to stick up for his memory: ‘only a second cousin in Middlesbrough, and he was in Middlesbrough.’ Acknowledging his palatial suite in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, big-time gangster Colleone (Charles Goldner) comments, ‘You see the gold on them furnitures? Napoleon the Third used to have this room with Eugenie.’
Bringing a biting, expressionist edge to this seedy tale is director of photography Harry Waxman. A top-notch cinematographer, Waxman went on to work on arguably the two finest British horror films ever, ‘The Wicker Man’ and Jose Larraz’s ‘Vampyres.’ Here he matches Greene’s prose with images that glint like a cut-throat razor.
The sequence where Spicer (a crony of Pinkie’s who, being ‘milky’, needs to ‘take an holiday’) falls to his death is unforgettable: the clanging of the grandfather clock as his body hits the floor, the flame that shoots out from a broken gaslight, the final close-up of Spicer’s face, stunned in death.
Then there is the cast, which shows just the same quality in depth as you see in David Lean films of similar vintage. The character parts are brilliant – William Hartnell as Dallow, Pinkie’s loyal lieutenant (people who recall his doddery Dr Who will be surprised at how tough and vital he is here), Harcourt Williams as the drink-addled lawyer Prewitt. But even the bit part actors who fill out the pub scenes offer a wealth of twitches, sweaty pores and furtive mannerisms.
And then there are the film’s more subtle achievements. One area for which ‘Brighton Rock’ rarely receives due credit is the sound engineering by Audrey Bennett. Incredibly sophisticated for the period, it presents an almost constant backdrop of wailing babies, squeaking springs and rasping love songs that serves as a reminder of the human merry-go-round that Pinkie so loathes.
Finally, there is Pinkie himself, as played inimitably by Richard Attenborough. You can argue all day about the character’s motives (it was never mentioned at school, but could his disdain of the marriage bed be more than theological? After all, Dallow says, ‘Pinkie loved Kite’, the mob boss whose death triggers the whole story.)
Attenborough, with his doll-like face, taut, disapproving mouth and busy hands working a piece of string as if it’s a rosary, offers a performance that’s big enough to allow for a range of interpretations. It’s an extremely intelligent piece of acting, thoroughly alive to Greene’s acid ironies. ‘Wherever you go, I’ll go too,’ Rose writes tenderly in a love letter, and he’s hardly able to swallow his disgust as he pictures her following him to hell itself.
Yes, the film has aged in small ways – the ending wraps up a little too quickly for modern tastes – but, with this beautifully restored DVD release, it looks set to endure for a good while yet. ‘I’ve never changed,’ said Ida, making a general point about humanity. ‘I’m like those sticks of rock. Bite all the way down, and they still read Brighton.’ Bite down on ‘Brighton Rock,’ and it still reads classic.