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Tag Archives: Richard Attenborough

Brighton Rock (December 1947)

John Boulting’s Brighton Rock is an indelible portrait of evil. Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of 17-year-old gangster Pinkie Brown is one of the nastiest and coldest characterizations I’ve ever seen on film.

While Pinkie Brown’s crimes may pale in comparison with cinematic bogeymen like Hannibal Lecter — Pinkie is a garden-variety murderer, schemer, racketeer, and despoiler of women — Attenborough’s uncompromisingly nasty performance has no equal.

Brighton Rock is based on the novel by Graham Greene. It takes place during the interwar years in the seaside resort town of Brighton, home of the Brighton Racecourse, where Pinkie and his crew ply their protection racket.

Before seeing this film, my only image of Attenborough was as the middle-aged, pouchy-eyed RAF Squadron Leader of The Great Escape (1963) and as the grandfatherly CEO of Jurassic Park (1993). If I’d missed the credits, I never would have recognized him. He was 23 or 24 when he appeared in Brighton Rock, a little older than the 17-year-old hoodlum he was playing, but nevertheless he was perfectly cast.

Attenborough has the smooth, angelic face of a choirboy, but his eyes are cold and malevolent. Pinkie is a young man with no past and no future. There is no real explanation of how he came to be the way he is, and his homicidal impulses and poor planning guarantee that he is not long for this world.

The film begins with the choice Pinkie makes that will seal his downfall. It’s fitting that it’s a murder committed not out of necessity, but in retaliation for a perceived slight. Pinkie blames a newspaper writer named Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley) for the death of his gang’s leader, so when Hale is in Brighton for a day, Pinkie sets his sights on him.

After threatening Hale in a pub, Pinkie and his henchmen — the happy-go-lucky ne’er-do-well Cubitt (Nigel Stock) and the coldly efficient Dallow (William Hartnell) — pursue Hale through the throngs of summertime beachgoers in a pulse-pounding sequence. Pinkie finally corners Hale and murders him on a carnival ride.

It’s appropriate that it’s a fun-house ride to hell, with painted demons and cartoonish monsters flying toward the riders, since Pinkie is himself headed to hell, and Brighton Rock is the chronicle of his dissolution.

His murder of Hale piques the interest of Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), a brassy music-hall singer who spent some time with Hale on the day of his death. However, Pinkie’s attempt to create an alibi for himself only creates a second possible witness — a shy waitress named Rose (Carol Marsh) — after Pinkie’s elderly henchman Spicer (Wylie Watson) bungles the job of trying to create a false trail for the police to follow.

Pinkie’s interest in Rose causes her to become deeply attached to Pinkie. She falls in love with him, even though she knows how wicked he is.

Pinkie’s evil is inextricably tied to his Catholicism. He’s not a psychopath who doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong. His rejection of goodness is a conscious decision. As he tells Rose, “These atheists don’t know nothing. Of course there’s a hell, flames, damnations, torments.”

Pinkie knows he is damned. He just doesn’t care.

Rose is his diametrical opposite. Modern viewers might have trouble swallowing how deeply devoted Rose is to Pinkie, despite his clear disdain of her, but her love of Pinkie is a mirror of her devotion to God. It’s the kind of devotion that asks nothing in return.

When Pinkie tries to convince her they should enter into a suicide pact (which he calls a “suicide pax” — as a Catholic he knows that “pax” means “peace”), she weepingly protests that it’s a mortal sin. He responds, “Just one more.”

If you care for the character of Rose, Brighton Rock can be a difficult film to watch. While the ending of the film is an ironic demonstration of “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” watching Pinkie systematically attempt to destroy such a simple, sweet-natured young woman is appalling.

On the other hand, it’s his unblinking awfulness that makes Brighton Rock such a powerful film. Most film villains have something that makes them likable or fun to watch — a sardonic sense of humor, a glimmer of goodness, a tragic origin story. Pinkie has none of these things. He is a nasty piece of work, through and through.

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A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).