“Rialto’s Best of British Noir,” at Landmark’s Nuart, Feb 5-11, 2010, is a five-film paean to the black and white British genre. Unlike American crime movies, British Noir usually features petty criminals and war veterans drawn into black marketeering. The post-war era of rationing seemed to last forever in Britain, helping to stifle personal dreams. Unlike the drive to succeed that haunts American crime characters, the “little man” protagonists of these films accept the static class system, taking comfort from the close knit urban communities in which they live.
John Boulting’s 1947 “Brighton Rock”, (an adaptation of Graham Greene’s “entertainment” by Terence Rattigan and rewritten by Greene), is set in the seedy pre-war seaside resort of Brighton, a menacing, rundown pleasure zone. It begins with this disclaimer “Brighton today is a large jolly friendly seaside town in Sussex, but there was another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums…crime and violence and gang warfare…now happily no more”. Set between the wars, it portrays the ‘spiv’ black-market scene (that continued to flourish post-war) and jabs at the rise of Media culture.
An energetic opening sequence establishes Brighton in all its tacky glory, circling the vulgar broad streets, and narrow back streets before introducing Pinkie Brown and his ill-assorted mob. Young Richard Attenborough gives a disturbing performance as the sleek, psychopathic young killer Pinkie.
Reporter ‘Kolley Kibber’ comes to Brighton on a one-day publicity stunt, as announced in the Daily Messenger. One of the gang recognizes Kibber as Fred Hale, a journalist whose expose of The Slot Machine Racket, lead to the mob killing of the gang’s leader, Kite.
It’s a death sentence for Fred. Murderous Pinkie has sworn revenge. “Pinkie loved Kite, Kite trusted Fred and if Fred hadn’t written that paragraph about the Slot Machines, Kite’d be alive today.” That’s as explicit as the script gets. In the novel it’s clear that pretty boy Pinkie was Kite’s boy toy.
Pinkie sends the gang out to follow Kibber. Aware he’s a marked man, desperate Fred leads the gang on an extended chase sequence through the Bank Holiday revelers at the pier, before he’s drowned in a amusement park ride by ruthless Pinkie. Along the way, Fred uses two day-tripping girls and the blowsy drunken Ida as cover. Taken with Fred, Ida’s convinced that he’s been murdered (she’s a psychic) and continues her investigation when the police turn a deaf ear. Hermione Baddeley is outstanding as Pinkie’s brassy nemesis. Traveling player and good time gal Ida belts out a song at the pub, eliciting Pinkie’s first words in the film.” “Won’t anybody shut that brass’s mouth?”
Now that Kite is dead, the mob has lost ground to criminal kingpin Colleoni (Charles Goldner). Colleoni runs his business from the luxe Cosmopolitan hotel. “No more trickery” he warns the fuming Pinkie.” I’m a businessman, my boy; you can’t damage a businessman. Napoleon the third used to have this room with Eugenie.” “Who’s she?” asks Pinkie. “Some foreign polony.”
Pinkie spends the rest of the film covering up the murder. He kills the recriminating Spicer (Wylie Watson), and marries the naive Rose (Carole Marsh) “You’re sensitive, like me.” he says courting her. Carole Marsh is luminous as the girl with a memory for faces. Threatening her, with a story about a girl who had her face smashed in for talking, doesn’t deter Rose, who’s mad for the baby faced killer. Pinkie enjoys the power he holds over people. He nearly croons to his intended victims, improvising their demise before our eyes.
Greene, a recent convert to Catholicism, tries out the Catholic metaphors that haunt his later work. Winning a kewpie doll with “yellow hair” Pinkie explains, “Reminds me of church, Bill”. Later, idly, he pulls out all its hair.
At the civil wedding, Pinkie confesses he wanted to be a priest.
Romancing masochistic Rose, (who he plans to murder) he explains “I’ve watched it…I know love.” We can only imagine what traumatic sexual grappling the nascent misogynist peeped at.
“You’re a Catholic” he asks Rose, finding her rosary, “I’m one too.” “You believe, don’t you?” gushes Rose. Of course,” answers Pinkie,” There’s hell, damnation, torments.” He ought to know.
William Hartnell plays the flash, protective Dallow. Pruitt (Harcourt Williams) is their alcoholic Shakespeare- spewing attorney; Wylie Watson plays the aging tough “Spicer”, and Nigel Stock, the wormy Cubit.
The lyrical black and white images were shot by DP Harry Waxman, who later shot Robert Hamer’s “The Long Memory” & “Father Brown”. Camera operator Gil Taylor was the DP on “Repulsion”, “A Hard Days Night” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
Another “discovery” for Rialto is the re-release of Robert Hamer’s humanist Noiresque melodrama, “It Always Rains On Sunday.” Hamer, who directed “The Haunted Mirror” sequence in “Dead Of Night,” and the Ealing classic “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” has been enjoying an over-due rediscovery. A marvelous stylist, closeted gay Hamer completed 13 features before he died of pneumonia at 52. He seems inspired by the pre-war classics of the French Poetic Realist School.
Using flashbacks and overlapping story lines, Hamer’s feverish 90-minute noir never lets up the suspense. The soap opera elements of the interlocking characters foreshadows Britain’s “Kitchen Sink Realism” of the 1950’s and 60’s. Douglas Slocombe’s chiaroscuro criss-crossing tracks filled with steam engines and nacreous coal cars make a memorable backdrop for Hamer’s taut finale.
Former barmaid Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers) lives with her husband and stepchildren in the squalid East End. When her former lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) escapes from Dartmoor prison, she hides him from the police and her new family. Withers and McCallum (in life, married for 60 years) are brilliant as the one-time lovers, who have one last fling, but so, too, is the rest of the cast. Edward Chapman plays husband George, the homey workingman, who only wants a dart game in the pub to feel content. Jack Warner plays the patient Detective Fothergill who tracks Swann down.
Rose bosses around her step kids. Foxy blond Vi (Susan Shaw) is looking for a man, any man, as a ticket out of her slum surroundings. She’s making time with married music store proprietor & sax player, Morry Hyams (Sydney Tafler). Morry’s yiddisher wife Sadie (Betty Ann Davies) is a master of the put down. At the local dance hall, Canny Sadie hands the philanderer over to her young rival and walks out on him. “Even his dress shirts you have to wash at home, course, quite often you can get the lipstick off with breadcrumbs.” Unable to conceive of living without his unpaid housekeeper, Morry dumps nubile Vi. Morry’s brother ‘spiv’ Lou (John Slater) has eyes for Vi’s brunette sister, good girl Doris (Patricia Plunkett). Even young Alfie (David Lines) has an angle, blackmailing hapless Morry for a harmonica to keep his mouth shut about his philandering.
Housewife Rose finds the frozen Swan huddling in her air raid shelter. After cooking lunch, she packs her family off, and secretes Swan in her bedroom. When the manhunt closes in, she attempts suicide. Withers is powerful as the strident housewife, trapped by life, gaining sympathy for a character that does some unlikable things.
Using an Aristotelian construction, Hamer gives us 24 hours in the life of the neighborhood. From sunrise to the deep-focus moonlit chase in the train yard, Hamer makes the most of his drab urban locations. It’s a lively tour of London’s ‘Lower East Side’- the coffee stalls, the crowded street market with its rowdy merchants hawking their wares, the bookies at the provisional boxing ring erected on the Green near the pub, the Post War shops and cramped terrace houses. There’s an assortment of black market characters, including a trio who sell some “off the truck” roller skates to a crooked priest, and the boxing tout Lou (John Slater), another of Vi’s erstwhile suitors.
This ambiance rich classic was produced by Michael Balcon, who produced most of Hitchcocks’ early thrillers. Hamer was the editor on Hitchcocks “Jamaica Inn” before joining Ealing Studios.
The series also features Michael Powell’s lurid pulp masterpiece “Peeping Tom” (1980) and two of the collaborations between Graham Greene and director Carol Reed: the legendary “The Third Man” (1949) and “The Fallen Idol (1948), featuring Ralph Richardson, Jack Hawkins and Dandy Nichols and Bobby Henrey, as the lonely eight year-old boy who sees more than he should and convinced his butler has killed his wife, runs way.
Greene, one of the most influential English writers of the twentieth century modern English language (and sometimes film critic), described his fiction writing as “When I describe a scene…I capture it with the moving eye of the cine-camera.” Nuart Theatre -11272 Santa Monica Blvd.