Tuesday, October 10, 2006

BRIGHTON ROCK's Wild English Rose

Carol Marsh -- best-known to readers of this blog as Miss Lucy in Terence Fisher's DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) -- disappeared from the screen back into private life shortly after making that film. Posterity will likely remember her as the girl whose forehead was ruined by the touch of Van Helsing's crucifix, a vision of innocence turned feral and virulent by a ravishment of evil ("Come... let me kiss you"). But as fine as her DRACULA performance was, Carol Marsh gave it in the long shadow cast by an even better one, her very first chance at (pardon the expression) bat. Born Norma Simpson in 1929, Marsh made her screen debut under truly auspicious, well-publicized circumstances, beating out 2,000 other contenders for the coveted role of Rose Brown in John Boulting's 1947 film of Graham Greene's hard-hitting novel BRIGHTON ROCK.

For reasons unknown to me, BRIGHTON ROCK is one of those high-profile British films that has always been next to impossible to see here in America. It was given a US theatrical release under the title YOUNG SCARFACE, but it has disappeared since. Amazon.com assures me that there was a VHS release from Movies Unlimited, now out-of-print, but isn't Movies Unlimited a store rather than a video label? I've never known the film to appear on television, and I didn't get around to seeing it for the first time until just a couple of years ago, when a friend sent me a darkish dub made from a copy in a Los Angeles video store's private collection.

As a longtime admirer of Greene's novel (still one of the scariest things I've ever read), I found the movie to be uncannily successful in all departments: Richard Attenborough is the very image of Pinky Brown, the soft-voiced, sadistic ringleader of a criminal gang (it wouldn't surprise me if he based Pinkie's speech patterns on those of fellow British actor Philip Stone, familiar from later Stanley Kubrick films); Hermione Baddeley is note-perfect as Ida Arnold, a good-hearted goodtime gal who decides to investigate the disappearance of an attentive man she met at Brighton Rock, which she links to a mob hit; Harcourt Williams is unforgettable as the alcoholic mob lawyer Prewitt; Nigel Stock (THE LOST CONTINENT) and William Hartnell (a future DOCTOR WHO) are vivid as Pinky's associates; and then there is Carol Marsh, who is not the Rose I pictured while reading the novel, but I'll give the filmmakers this: such were the limits of my imagination. Were I to read the novel again, I doubt I could keep the memory of Marsh's face, smile, or jittery, eager-to-please mannerisms at bay for very long.

Hers is a mesmerizing and ultimately heartbreaking performance, much of which is wrapped up in her demure yet vaguely animalistic presence. For all of Rose's sweetness, it's nigh impossible not to see the wicked quality that prompted Terence Fisher to cast Marsh as Lucy. She is like an English rose with thorns gathering in her brows. Rose is a simple, pure-hearted girl whose lack of complication is both her virtue and her downfall. Marsh makes us believe in Rose as a small town girl, honest and open to a fault, who has fled a no longer tenable home life (involving, we sense, physical and perhaps sexual abuse) to seek her fortune in the big city, naturally starting at the bottom -- as a waitress. She's eager to find love and protection to replace the family she's lost, but the chance intervention of a ten-pound contest ticket into her life damns her to marry the biggest little monster on the midway. Rose has seen too much, knows who killed the man in the haunted house ride on Palace Pier, and that's why Pinky wants to tie the knot -- right around her throat -- in the event she's ever called to testify against him. Already hurt by the world and desperate for protection, she is starry-eyed over her ice-cold suitor, and he flaunts his clammy loathing of her to the extent of recording a litany of hateful insults in an arcade sound booth, under cover of being a love letter, knowing that the poor girl doesn't own a phonograph to play the tell-tale acetate.

Another striking thing about BRIGHTON ROCK, when seen today, is the modernity of its construction. The story unfolds obliquely, standing close by the efforts of a secondary character (Alan Wheatley) to stay alive, who doesn't survive the first twenty minutes. The real protagonists are only glimpsed prior to this, but their presence is felt throughout -- Attenborough is potently introduced as a pair of hands flexing with alacrity whilst executing various cat's cradles with a web of string. The music by Hans May also feels quite contemporary in the way it pushes the action through orchestrated rhythm rather than melody, and it's hard to believe that this was only the second feature assignment for director of photography Harry Waxman, whose highly mobile, dramatic style qualifies BRIGHTON ROCK as a masterpiece of film noir cinematography and perhaps the greatest British example. Its place in the hiearchy of gangster films is unquestionable, and devotées of the genre will find interesting a sequence where Pinky meets with the Italian leader of local organized crime, a man named Colleoni (according to the IMDb, that is; his name sounded more to me like "Corleone").

The finale of Greene's novel, which found Rose returning home while looking forward to listening to Pinky's recorded "love letter" for the first time, is one of the great harrowing finales of 20th century English literature. Because it was considered too strong and downbeat for the film version, Greene worked with screenwriter Terrence Rattigan to conceive an acceptable alternative ending, which is arguably the movie's only fault. Viewers unfamiliar with the book may find it acceptable enough, but it's like a bad joke; the extent to which we've bonded with Marsh's touching performance is the only thing that keeps it from being risible. To laugh at her gullibility would be too much of a sin on our part.

My quest for a perfect-looking BRIGHTON ROCK has now been satisfied. It's now available on DVD as part of a fabulous four-disc PAL R2 import set called THE GRAHAM GREENE COLLECTION (Optimum Releasing). In addition, the set includes splendid presentations of THE THIRD MAN (1949, including two "Third Man" radio plays and a featurette on zither musician/composer Anton Karas); THE FALLEN IDOL (1948, a longtime PD eyesore in America, here restored to its original lustre); and THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1953, with its great performance by THE THIRD MAN's Trevor Howard). All of the discs originate from Studio Canal masters.

The standard ratio presentation of BRIGHTON ROCK is generally excellent, with thin black matte lines on the peripheries; the PAL to NTSC playback does result in a faint awareness of accelerated film speed, especially when the action becomes naturally accelerated. The DD-2.0 mono audio track manages to reduce background noise without overly clipping the dialogue. Some viewers may have trouble making sense of some of the dialogue, which includes Cockney rhyming slang as well as some dated hardboiled slang, both of which are further obscured by regional accents; but if you can make it through PERFORMANCE, it shouldn't be a problem.

Criterion's THE THIRD MAN remains the definitive presentation of that title, but the remaining three titles are well worth the cost of this set; if you haven't acquired the Criterion disc, it becomes that much more attractive. Enthusiastically recommended, especially for BRIGHTON ROCK and the rejuvenated THE FALLEN IDOL, THE GRAHAM GREENE COLLECTION is available domestically from Xploited Cinema, here.

1 comment:

  1. "Brighton Rock" has been on several times (recently) on Turner Classic Movies. Any serious fan of great cinema should just turn on TCM and leave it on.

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