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  • Post last modified:March 19, 2022

Brighton Rock: Rise and Fall of Pinkie Brown


Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh. Photo: Pathé Pictures

In the first half of the twentieth century, Darby Sabini was the leader of a gang that made money from racecourse protection rackets in Britain, but competition between different gangs led to violent public battles where razors were used. One of them was in Brighton. When Graham Greene wrote his novel in 1938, he was clearly influenced by the violence and the film adaptation benefited from technical advice provided by a former Sabini gang member. The Third Man (1949) remains the ultimate Greene classic among the film adaptations, but Brighton Rock isn’t far behind.

A 17-year-old gangster
Brighton, 1935; a criminal gang has been taken over by a 17-year-old gangster, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough), who is less than thrilled with having the dirty business of the gang published in a newspaper. The guy who wrote the story, Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), will be in town for a PR stunt, but when he shows up Pinkie and his gang let him know that they hold him personally responsible for the death of the previous gang leader. Hale is pursued until Pinkie finally kills him on an amusement ride.

The police consider it to be a case of suicide or possibly a heart attack, but there is one person who isn’t so easily duped: Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), a veteran entertainer who enjoys the occasional drink or three. She met Hale before he was found dead and suspects foul play. As Ida begins to investigate on her own, Pinkie starts courting Rose Brown (Carol Marsh), a young waitress, thinking that she might be able to help him without realizing it.

Played Pinkie on stage
Director John Boulting may be best remembered for his satirical comedies, but one of his finest films is this gangster classic, made after Greene’s novel had been turned into a stage play. In the most famous production, a 1943 West End play, a 20-year-old Attenborough played Pinkie Brown and repeated the role for the film version, lending a fresh-faced but sinister touch to the sociopathic character who couldn’t care less about his lovely bride-to-be, but is still affected by his Catholic upbringing. So is Rose (and so was Greene), which becomes an important theme and conflict in the film, as the couple are innocence and evil personified.

The fact that Pinkie is just a teenager also makes another ingredient more believable. At one point, he’s supposed to declare his love for Rose, his voice being recorded at a fairgrounds booth. When Rose isn’t listening, Pinkie says, ”I hate you, you little slut. You make me sick”. Rose, who doesn’t own a gramophone, keeps the record as a sweet gift, little dreaming that it holds a devastating message for her. Why would anyone take that risk, you might ask… but it’s not so contrived when we consider the fact that, after all, Pinkie is just a teenager. The record plays an important part in the final scene, which was changed from the one in the novel, against Greene’s wishes. Which one is the most effective is still debatable.

Boulting maintains tension throughout with a series of well-crafted sequences. The film begins with crowded scenes in Brighton, as Fred is being chased through town, and ends famously with Pinkie and Rose out on the Palace Pier.

Another memorable moment is the murder that has the victim pushed down a staircase; the scene is so brutal it is likely one of the reasons why some critics at the time found the film grotesquely violent. Still, there’s plenty of charm here as well, especially in the case of Baddeley’s performance as Ida. She might have seen better days, but never underestimate this working-class sleuth. 

Brighton Rock 1948-Britain. 92 min. B/W. Produced by Roy Boulting. Directed by John Boulting. Screenplay: Graham Greene, Terence Rattigan. Novel: Graham Greene. Cinematography: Harry Waxman. Cast: Richard Attenborough (Pinkie Brown), Hermione Baddeley (Ida Arnold), Carol Marsh (Rose Brown), William Hartnell, Harcourt Williams, Wylie Watson.

Trivia: Originally released in the U.S. as Young Scarface. Remade as Brighton Rock (2011).



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