… the hesitation …

I went to Brighton Rock (not usually going to gangster films) because Graham Greene writes great stories and I hoped this one would survive the movie.  It does:  the story is terrific and the film is well done, and well worth seeing.

And at heart an absolute classic on how to build a character and a story on … hesitation.

Set in Brighton, England in the 1960’s, the film tells the story of Pinkie (Sam Riley), a small-time, ruthless gangster trying to be a bigger one.  Killings lead to killings and as Pinkie’s group tries to take over from a rival, powerful gang, Pinkie commits a revenge killing.  On the sunny Brighton boardwalk filled with strollers and “every day” people, Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a waitress in a café, innocently taking the air and reading, accidentally comes into possession of evidence linking Pinkie to the crime, and thus is drawn into his murderous life — it helps that he’s handsome, though awfully grim.

To purloin the evidence, and then to keep her quiet, Pinkie takes her out for an evening on the town.  She falls for him — ignoring all danger signals including the fresh knife cut across his cheek (doesn’t she recognize that mark of Cain?  maybe, but she never hesitates), and the attempts to protect her by the café owner, Ida (Helen Mirren).  And he, somewhere in his rotten soul, is touched by her trust and falls in love with her — or maybe he falls in love with her.  Or what is love anyway?  And can it coincide with hate?  We never know:  the emotional ambiguity of this movie is brilliant.

Whatever he feels for her, it’s powerful and sets up a conflict in him, because clearly the easiest thing to do about her, now that she knows too much, is to murder her:  but he hesitates.  He can’t quite bring himself to do it, he makes excuses to his friends, and, not a man for honor among thieves, he knocks off his closest associates as they get in his way about her and about challenging the gang run by powerful, rich Colleoni (Andy Serkis);  Pinkie does everything conceivable to keep her quiet except kill her.  Even at the end, well, I can’t tell you the end but it is absolutely superb.

The violence in this film is necessary — nothing gratuitous about it (a refreshing change) — because it’s part and parcel of the hot conflict within Pinkie:  seeing how totally brutal he is, his hesitation becomes all the more powerful, and thought-provoking.  Inner conflict in this brute?  Yes.  Which is exactly Graham Greene’s point.  We all have a soul, and somewhere in all of us is the possibility of love.  Maybe.  It’s a human message as well as, in this film and in Greene’s work, a Catholic vision.  Maybe.

You have to see the story through to the end to understand its powerful embedded ambiguities about a really bad man.  Pinkie tells Rose early on, “I’m bad, you’re good.  We’re alike.”   What was that supposed to mean?  By the end, I knew.

The film is set against the background of violent conflicts between motorcyclists (“Rockers”) and scooter drivers (“Mods”) that disrupted the pleasant resort of Brighton, near the White Cliffs of Dover, during the 1960’s.  The Rockers-Mods’ hectic speed, noisy collisions and dangerous hatreds spill over onto the mild pleasure seekers on the boardwalk, providing cover for the dark chases and murders beneath it.  While the novel (1938) and the first film made of it (1947), are set in the 1930’s, I think that bringing it up to the time of the Rockers v. Mods is a creative act:  this way the film shows violence as not something below the surface, sequestered among men who make their livings as gangsters and so, if you’re lucky, potentially avoidable:  violence is surround-sound.

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