Brighton Rock: still peerless after all these years
A new film version moves Graham Greene’s gangster story from the 1930s to the Swinging Sixties. But Pinkie Brown, anti-hero of Greene’s dark masterwork, does not need ‘updating’.
When my teenage daughter complained recently that she had no good books to read, having exhausted the vampire romance section and reread the complete Harry Potters once too often, I suggested she might try the favourite novel of my early teens (no, not The Godfather, the other one): Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. This was before we had heard about the trendy new movie based on Greene’s novel; as my daughter knows, the one thing I could never do is try to appear fashionable.
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Having not seen the remade screen version of Brighton Rock, due to open in the UK on 4 February, it would be unfair to say too much about it (although the trailer and the internet previews appear somewhat unpromising). Who knows, it may be a great film in its own right, though it would have to go some to match the Boulting brothers’ 1947 original, the best of British noir (released in the US as Young Scarface). But what can be said with some confidence is that the film will not better the book. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the movie interests a new generation sufficiently to go and read it.
Because Greene’s 1938 gangster novel remains one of the great fictional accounts of the complex struggle for the human soul. From the portentous opening line – ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’ – to the harrowing last line – ‘She walked rapidly in the thin June sunshine towards the worst horror of all’ – it is a dark masterpiece, a small crime novel with far bigger themes about our humanity running through it like ‘Brighton’ through a proverbial stick of seaside rock candy.
Brighton Rock is the story of Pinkie Brown, a young hoodlum in 1930s Brighton, at the end of the era of the ‘razor gangs’ that were the closest Britain got to the US-style gangsters of the prewar era. The seedy little mob that Pinkie leads murders Hale, a newspaperman, for betraying Kite, their former leader and Pinkie’s mentor. It is implied that Pinkie chokes Hale with Brighton rock. In his efforts to cover up this crime Pinkie courts Rose, the pasty young girl whose evidence could hang him, and kills again, but is pursued relentlessly by his nemesis Ida – a brassy working-class woman or ‘buer’ who had befriended Hale – towards the inevitable grim ending.
The new film ‘updates’ the book – something that sets my alarm bells ringing whether done to Shakespeare or lesser literary lights – by shifting the action to 1964 and the Brighton of Mods and Rockers, apparently because the director believes that the young outlaw Pinkie fits in with that era of teenage rebellion. This may well help with marketing the movie, but it does the book and the character no favours.
Yes, Pinkie does exhibit the sort of characteristics often associated with modern ‘alienated’ adolescent males: the incoherent anger at the hypocrisy and unfairness of the seemingly rotten grown-up world, the self-obsession, the shame, embarrassment, bravado, fear and all the rest of it. No doubt this helps explain why the book made such a connection with me in my 1970s teens, when I reread it about once a year. There was even a time while studying Brighton Rock when some of us ’orrible anti-social adolescents played with a razor blade held under a thumb nail in class, as the Brighton gangsters wield theirs – though being Surrey grammar school boys we didn’t cut anybody except ourselves.
But Brighton Rock still belongs in the Thirties. Like many great characters of literature, Pinkie is of his time, yet with universal qualities and characteristics that make it possible for us to relate to him today. He is not, however, a teenage rebel in the style of the Sixties or Seventies, let alone of the twenty-first century. In Pinkie’s world there are no such things as ‘teenagers’, which were an invention of the postwar boom and culture. He is a boy, or more specifically ‘the boy’, in a prewar world of adults, dismissed as ‘just a child’ at first glance by everybody from Ida to the big gang boss Mr Colleoni. As he lashes out in fury and frustration, Pinkie’s aim is not to speak for ‘my generation’ or any of that, but to be treated and respected as a man, to have his money and name accepted as being ‘as good as theirs’.
Indeed the point is that, at 17, within his own mob he is the Man; Greene says that, as he meets with the more experienced gang members over fish and chips to establish their alibis after killing Hale, ‘they all three left their fish untested as they stared at the boy – like children before his ageless eyes’. And in his shabby imitation adult suit, with a hole in the sole of his shoe and another in the roof of his car, the ‘real’ Pinkie could surely never be mistaken for a cool teenage Mod on a shiny scooter.
(Today, by contrast, it might be said that we live in a far wealthier and freer world, but one in which we often seem to be treated as perpetual teenagers. It has been pointed out that the Boulting brothers’ original film slightly fudged the emotionally grisly ending of Brighton Rock – where Rose discovers the truth about the bitter hate side to Pinkie’s hate/love feelings towards her – so as not to offend the strict censors of the time. Yet the new film version reportedly makes more or less the same concession, presumably for fear of offending us delicate and vulnerable movie-watchers.)
In any case, there is much more to Brighton Rock than a tale of teenage rebellion. Greene says it started off as ‘simple detective novel’ but soon developed into a discussion that was really ‘too obvious and open for a novel, of the distinction between good and evil, and right and wrong and the mystery of the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”’.
Greene is famed as an intellectual convert to Catholicism who never really lost the doubting attitude of his earlier atheism. He noted that the ‘real point’ of the story of Brighton Rock was ‘the contrast between the ethical mind and the religious’. For Greene, the religious mind was not necessarily the good; he believed, as the priest tells Rose at the book’s end, that ‘a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone… we are more in touch with the devil than other people’.
Hence Pinkie the psychopath is a Catholic – ‘a Roman’ – with a burning fear of death and damnation, harbouring a faint hope of last-minute salvation – ‘between the stirrup and the ground, he mercy sought and mercy found’ – though he feels destined for Hell. Rose, his victim and devoted follower, is a Catholic, too, albeit with more hope of seeing Heaven. Ida on the other hand is scathing about priests and religion, but with a highly developed ‘ethical mind’, repeatedly assuring herself and others that she ‘knows what’s right, you can’t tell me’. So she is determined to ‘save the girl’ from Pinkie whether Rose wants to be saved or not, and to make sure he gets what is coming to him for killing ‘Fred’ (Hale). She is the ethical, secular, avenging angel of the tale.
This doubting Catholic’s vision might seem to chime with the fashionable New Atheist worldview – religious bad, ethical good. Yet Greene’s characters are more subtle than such caricatures. Greene certainly took a dark view of the human condition, insisting that human nature is ‘not black and white – it’s black and grey’. The grey areas at least allow him to develop the complexities of his characters’ humanity.
So Ida the ethical crusader also loves booze and sex and gambling and is all for ‘a bit of fun’ with a stranger such as Hale, her firm belief that ‘it’s good to be alive’ seeming a far cry from the miserabilism of today’s neo-puritans. This scourge of Catholicism is also a self-righteous believer in superstition and devotee of the ouija board. Rose the Roman Catholic starts out as a simple innocent, a two-dimensional child of the slums and Our Lady, yet grows into an increasingly worldly young woman, her childlike and almost masochistic devotion to Pinkie mixed with an inner will of her own.
And even Pinkie, the embodiment of the dark recesses of the ‘religious mind’, is more than a religious nutter. His cold repulsion at the idea of human contact means he has ‘held intimacy back as long as he could at the end of a razor blade’. Yet he burns with all-too-human passions, Rose becoming the focus for both his hatred and something closer to love: ‘they were both doomed in their own way. Again he got the sense that she completed him.’ To Pinkie, atheists, for all their self-professed certainties, ‘know nothing’ about life and death. In the end his conflicting passions lead him off the cliff edge, his face in hellish flames from his own smashed bottle of vitriol, ‘shrunk into a schoolboy flying in panic and pain’.
Maybe some might even like to update Pinkie as a modern suicide bomber, a cocktail of nihilism and religious fervour with a murderous streak. But there is rather more going on with Greene’s skinny sadistic anti-hero than that. Which is presumably why I warmed to him and his fuck-you attitude when I was a teenager, without ever wanting to be as bad as him. Nor would I want my daughters to turn out anything like Pinkie or Rose. But then teenagers don’t need fictional role models trying to show them how to live. What they need, perhaps, like the rest of us, are books and characters that can take them out of themselves and their ‘boring’ routines and bring some bigger questions to life. It is just possible Pinkie Brown could do an even better job of that than Harry Potter or Edward from Twilight.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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