Features and Columns · Movies

‘Brighton Rock’ and the Iconography of Film Noir

John Boulting’s sinister adaptation examines the religious undertones of the film noir genre.
Brighton Rock
Charter Films
By  · Published on November 15th, 2020

Welcome to The Noirvember Files, a new series dropping the spotlight on essential film noir selections. The titles celebrated here exemplify the style and substance of cinema’s grimiest, most-relatable underbelly. In this entry, we’re taking a trip to the dark, crime-ridden underworld of Brighton Beach and examining the themes of good and evil in the 1948 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock.

Film noir is known for being both stylish and dark. Pick any example and you’re almost guaranteed to see a bounty of beautiful and evil women and at least one man walking down a shadowy alleyway in a trenchcoat, as well as under (and over) tones of sin and betrayal. And while film noir might be popular for its sexy femmes fatale and oft-riffed voiceover, when you boil it down to its fundamentals, it is really about one thing: damnation.

We see this theme in the genre’s most celebrated examples, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, where a man is tricked into committing irreversible mortal sin, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which a murderous villain inevitably gets what’s coming to him. The rules of film noir state that if you commit a crime, you will be punished in one way or another. The film noir universe is cold, relentless, and inescapable.

John Boulting’s 1948 film Brighton Rock, an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel of the same name, explores the themes of condemnation and damnation with consistent use of religious iconography. The Christian Bible, like film noir, has an inevitable rule system. Sinners will be punished, and the good shall see prosperity. A Christian presence in film noir, then, is a particularly significant choice and helps to break down the film’s narrative to its core. 

Brighton Rock follows Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) as a violent young gang leader in Brighton who seduces his murder witness, Rose (Carol Marsh), while he plummets down a rabbit hole of carnage and sin. From the outset, Pinkie is involved heavily with the narrative of Christian despair. His relationship with the world is determined entirely by the basis of nihilism. Because of this, he follows a path of self-destruction so that the world does not destroy him first. His very existence subsequently inspires pain and melancholy. 

It is safe to say that based on the film noir genre’s adherence to a narrative structure of sin and damnation, Brighton Rock is set up to follow Pinkie’s complete downfall. The religious icons in the film foreshadow this trajectory from the very beginning as Pinkie is introduced when a messenger arrives in his bedroom to tell him that he has been promoted to leader of one of the most vicious gangs in Brighton. 

When we first meet Pinkie, we do not see his face. Instead, we’re shown a rope he is using to bind his fingers together. While the rope’s presence might at first appear benign, rope often functions as a sinister symbol of bondage and in Christianity can be attributed to Judas. John 18:12 recalls “the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him, and led him away to Annas first.” So Pinkie is introduced as a Judas-like character–a betrayer of the good.

After Pinkie conducts his first murder in broad daylight, his lust for killing begins to overshadow his anxiety of being caught. When the gang discovers that Pinkie was so nonchalant about the setting of his kill, one of the members says, “You’ve put a rope around our necks, Pinkie.” So if you didn’t buy that first allusion to Judas, perhaps this one will convince you. 

And Pinkie gets away with murder. At least, at first. This is because his only witnesses are a blind man and a small child who, out of sheer terror, will not speak. Blindness is used in the Christian Bible as a prominent symbol of good and evil. Jesus often cures the blind as a symbol of both his power and goodness, but, in other areas of scripture, it asks more complicated moral questions.

In the Gospel of John, “Jesus saw a man who had been blind since birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:1-12). Here, the disciples ask whether or not blame can be ascribed at all, and if the sins of the father are transferred to his son. This speaks to Pinkie’s character: he is a boy who suffers inwardly and subsequently causes outward suffering, and, as a result, is made to suffer. The examination of fate ties into the broader questions of the film noir genre and asks who is really at fault for a committed sin and who ought to be punished.

These thematic questions arise in the character of Rose, Pinkie’s fiancé, who at first appears to be the epitome of good. Even her name is a reflection of the legend which refers to the Virgin Mary as a “rose without thorns,” due to her exemption from the consequences of original sin. Rose also carries a rosary, which exists as a reminder of her devotion to the Virgin Mary and her goodness. But in the end, she agrees to join Pinkie in a suicide pact, which is the ultimate revolt against her Christian beliefs.

When Pinkie decides to marry Rose as a measure to keep her quiet, he feels only hatred and disgust for her, and the wedding is thus predicated on dishonesty. He refuses to marry her in a church, which, back then, was a dismissal of Christianity. For Pinkie, it is also an admission of guilt: he does not want God to bear witness to this unholy matrimony. Perhaps this way he can protect himself from a harsher judgment. 

However, in keeping with the genre of film noir, Pinkie does meet a bitter end. He dies by falling off a dock into a river, which is an image of reverse baptism: he ultimately falls as the consequence of his evils, but he does not fall into heaven. He is vanquished into the fires of hell.

But there is still hope for Rose. In the final scene of Brighton Rock, she sits in a room adorned with Christian symbology. Perhaps she will be exempt. Still, there is one truth that remains: all characters in a film noir will eventually meet their fate, whatever that might be. It is only a matter of time.

Related Topics: ,

Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.