May 05, 2009

Brighton Rock: the difference between film and literature

The film, Brighton Rock, is a masterpiece of British noir cinema- it is expertly photographed and filmed- but more importantly it has at its centre a thought about criminality that is worth considering. Brighton Rock has a murder at its centre- it concerns the cover up of the crime (which involves the seduction of a waitress Rose by the murderer Pinkie) and the investigation of the crime by a woman named Ida. The novel that the film was based upon is an intriguing work (I wrote about it here)- and very well written- and the film though its screenplay was written by Graham Greene too takes the same basic plot line and characters but does different things with them. In a sense the differences between the novel and the film show the different strengths of the two media- and how they can create different arguments in our head. Ultimately the film is not a lesser or better piece of art than the novel, but it is focused on different things: not so much the nature of Catholicism and guilt as the nature of crime. Both are about the internal situation of the criminal but the one treats his moral perdition and the second treats of his situation and its psychological consequences.

The film is about the latter. Pinkie in the film says at one point that he is not interested in love but interested in security: security from those looking for him for his crimes. What Richard Attenborough, playing Pinkie, does is give you a sense of the terror of being hunted. When the film begins he seems ultimately in control- but his control we see as the film goes on is very brittle. His control over his gang mates depends more upon sudden bursts of cold fury than it does upon real leadership. When we first see him, we get the sense of tense coiled control and aggression: but in reality what that aggression and control mask is a sense that the world is getting beyond him, a sense which is entirely accurate, the world, unlike the piece of string that he manically ties round his fingers, is actually not amenable to his own manipulation. Seeking for security, he keeps making mistakes that might lead to further insecurity. The irony is that the reason he has to secure himself is that he killed someone who did something he could not control which led to another disaster. In that sense Pinkie's crimes are merely pathetic- a failing attempt to safeguard himself.

Richard Attenborough plays Pinkie with sustained menace and frantic panic. He has the screen presence to control the pace of the film and its direction. The film narrows in on his face, the camera drawn to chart his emotions. Alongside him the members of the gang fade into the background, objects of his fear, contempt and eventual destruction. Ida the detective is much less of a figure than she is in Greene's novel. Rather Pinkie's antagonist is Rose- who he seduces into marriage and almost into a suicide pact. Rose embodies a different attitude to other people- whereas Pinkie is determined to secure himself from others and his Catholicism adds to his gloom- Rose is determined to live for others, specifically Pinkie, and her religion is ritual rather than guilt. Rose becomes central because she cannot leave behind the fact that Pinkie might be redeemed- she cannot ignore that idea and equally is willing to follow him anywhere- even at the expense of her religion and her eternal soul. Carol Marsh is charming, innocent and more importantly gets Rose's beneficence rightly. In a nice touch, whereas Pinkie greets every stranger with suspicion and manipulation, controlling the meeting, Rose treats every stranger with openness, ceding them control immediately of the situation.

I found the film very powerful- just as I found the novel. What the film does, that the novel cannot, is take you fully inside the situation. What it cannot do is deal with the complicated Catholic nihilism- the peculiar kind of religion that is irreligion- that the novel does deal with. In both works of art, the argument of the other is implicit but the nature of the work of art governs the message that can be delivered. What you have here is an excellent and interesting case of the way that films and books differ- not in the quality of what they deliver- but in the type of message they deliver. Brighton Rock is almost the perfect adaptation because it really does adapt the new work into another medium: rather than just putting the book on screen, or betraying the book, the film gives the story a new interpretation.


James Higham said...

What the film does, that the novel cannot, is take you fully inside the situation.

Interesting because the novel affords greater time to develop the situation.

James Hamilton said...

I was struck by the prologue to the film, in which it represented itself as looking back in more peaceful post WW2 times to a preWar wave of violent crime. Not the current order of events in the popular imagination exactly.

Excellent review - as usual! And very interesting to read juxtaposed with your comments on the novel.