Cine-Files – Brighton Rock

We were delighted to present the classic Brighton Rock on Tuesday for the Cine-Files strand with a guest talk by Film Historian Alex Rock. Here is a transcript of the talk for those of you who were unable to make it.

Our next Cine-Files screening is Sidney Lumet’s The Offence with a 30 minute talk by resident Film Historian Darrell Buxton. Tickets on sale here.


 

BR Lobby

Good evening, and welcome to tonight’s Cine-Files screening of the Boulting brothers classic and, in my opinion, the greatest British film ever made, Brighton Rock. My name is Alex Rock, and I’m QUAD’s Engagement Officer and a British film historian based at De Montfort University, and it gives me great pleasure to introduce tonight’s screening. You’re about to watch a film that, according to Jack Davies of the Sunday Express,

‘cannot be classed as entertainment because the subject matter with which it is concerned is sordid, squalid, sadistic and altogether unpleasant’.

Reg Whitley, in a famous savaging of Brighton Rock, summed the film up as follows:

In my view no woman will want to see it. No parents will want their children to see it. The razor-slashing scenes are horrific… In all sincerity, I say that we should produce no more like it.

Daily Mirror review

Why, then, was Brighton Rock, now a canonical and vital entry into the pantheon of British cinema, so reviled upon its release? The answer lies in the release schedules of British films between 1946 and 1950. James Chapman has noted that

[t]he underworld cycle, which peaked around 1947–48, represents a significant production trend in post-war British cinema… It has been calculated that between 1946 and 1950 there were two dozen films ‘in which underworld-based crime is a central activity’ and a further 44 which contained some element of criminal activity.[1]

Between 1945 and 1949, a series of British crime films featuring the black market were dominating release schedules. These films focused upon the weakness of the police, and were seen in the press as glamorising a life of crime. Their sordid subject matter – featuring racecourse gangs, prostitution, violence against women and under-the-counter black-marketeering – clearly hit a nerve, mainly because of the situation the country found itself in in the immediate post-war era. Britain itself was riddled with an epidemic of crime; Jack Spot and Billy Hill were running violent protection rackets and illegal gambling operations on an unprecedented scale, and the Messina brothers were controlling a huge prostitution operation in Soho, dealing in human trafficking and bribing senior Metropolitan Police and Flying Squad officers in order to keep the whole operation hush-hush.

On a smaller scale, a new, distinctive, and peacock-like wheeler-dealer was cropping up all over the country, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by rationing – which was at its fiercest in the post-war age of austerity – to set up small-scale illegal operations, raiding warehouses and selling anything from bread, tea, bacon, chocolate – anything a household needed that rationing denied. That wheeler-dealer became known as the spiv, and David Hughes’ nostalgic evocation paints a vivid picture:

‘Rings flashed on middle fingers, hats were crushed rakishly down on ducks-arse haircuts, and the mood, as if sustained from the war, was one of tough casual humour in the face of grave hardships; such as how to dispose at high speed of a hot lorryload of socks, twelve and a tanner in the stores, four bob to you. Luckily for the spiv, a surprisingly large number of people were soon wearing the socks (or drinking the Scotch or luxuriating in the sheets), and keeping mum about it.’

And here’s Donald Thomas’ description, taken from his excellent book, An Underworld At War:

‘With his trilby hat, loud racecourse clothes, padded shoulders and narrow waist, his quick-fire retailing of nylons from a cardboard suitcase at the kerbside, the spiv was a hero of austerity folklore. No one threatened to flog or shoot him. Instead, he was impersonated on the music-hall stage by such comedians as Frankie Howerd, Sid Field and Arthur English. Cartoonists relished his distinctive appearance. It had been possible to hate such a man whilst Germany was the enemy. As public antagonism turned against bureaucrats, snoops and politicians, the spiv was a licensed jester at the government’s expense, ‘Flash Harry’ or ‘Jack the Lad’.’

The spiv was a central figure in postwar British crime films, and the way in which the films channelled contemporary anxieties around crime whilst also seeming to glamorise their indulgent lifestyles caused consternation among the fraternity of Fleet Street film critics. Here’s a list of ten key films in this cycle of production. These films were released within a year and a half of each other, and there are many more examples. When you consider that around 40 British films were released during this period, you can see why these crime films are so important, and why their prevalence led to controversy; they represent around a quarter of all British films released in this period.

Two clips now to demonstrate how the spiv figure was used in these films. The first is from the Ealing Studios classic, It Always Rains On Sunday. Ealing Studios are most well-known for their comedies, but their output wasn’t confined to comedy. It Always Rains On Sunday is a hard-hitting East End drama – and one of the best Ealing films –  about a bored housewife who, feeling trapped in a routine marriage, finds excitement when an old flame escapes from prison and lands on her doorstep. The film has several sub-plots, including the tale of a group of spivs trying to get rid of a lorryload of stolen roller skates (clip).

The second clip is from the much-neglected film Noose, released in 1948. Noose was directed by Edmond Greville, who went on to direct the cult swinging London film, Beat Girl. For some reason, though, Noose hasn’t been rediscovered, and remains a pretty forgotten film. The film features a fantastic performance from Nigel Patrick as the black marketeer, Bar Gorman. Patrick’s performance led to Bar Gorman being labelled ‘the quintessential screen spiv’, and it’s a good 90 minutes of fun (clip).

The communities of early post-war Britain really took to the rebellious figure of the spiv and reacted negatively to figures of authority, evidenced by attitudes towards the police force.[2] This wasn’t really the police’s fault; rationing was still in effect up until the early 1950s, and the undermanned police force were seen as wasting time enforcing rationing when there was a crime wave sweeping the country. The effectiveness of the police, and their place in British society, is a key discourse interrogated within the crime films of the late Forties. In Brighton Rock, the police are impotent, helpless in the face of the organised rackets of Pinkie and Colleone which both dominate the racecourses and seafront of Brighton.

Brighton Rock

Joan Lester’s contextualisation of Brighton Rock is telling, and indicative of the gathering of a panic over crime films reaching British audiences:

Crime doesn’t pay and crooks never prosper – at least after the last reel but one. That is the law of the cinema. The scruples of such bodies as the U.S. Hays Office censorship [sic] are satisfied if the screen impresses upon the young that the more obvious forms of vice are not the royal road to lifelong wealth and success. But that has not prevented producers from depicting crimes as exciting and the criminal as glamorous. Such falsifications of life are far more dangerous.[3]

Lester continues by praising Brighton Rock for not doing this, and bemoans the inevitability of its negative reception due to its scheduled release falling at the end of a glut of British crime films.[4] This review and its sensationalistic headline, taken from the Daily Mirror, is indicative of the kind of reception these films received. However, not all of these films received these awful, knee-jerk reviews; It Always Rains On Sunday was particularly well-received. (‘Teems with rain – and real life’ read Elspeth Grant’s Daily Graphic review headline, while Dilys Powell noted that ‘[i]t is pleasant to be able to point once more to good writing for the English screen’)[5].

Brighton Rock2

The release of They Made Me A Fugitive in June 1947 saw the critics grow tired of postwar British crime cinema, and the reviews for the film demonstrate that the critics were beginning to talk about the releases as a whole. The film’s director, Alberto Cavalcanti, came to prominence as a pioneer of the much-respected British Documentary movement. His background in good, line-towing, nationalistic propaganda could explain why They Made Me A Fugitive was received with such hostility; the critics may have expected a realist-influenced analysis of the British black market in the age of austerity, but Cavalcanti had instead directed an Expressionistic crime melodrama of drug-filled coffins and stylised violence.

Looking at the reviews of They Made Me A Fugitive and Brighton Rock, it’s obvious that these depictions of crime in British cinema were touching a nerve among Fleet Street writers in a way that earlier crime films hadn’t. James Chapman has hypothesised that this might be because they were ‘imitat[ing] the style of American cinema’, and also that the films existed as ‘a disturbing and unattractive reflection of the state of British society’ as the nation underwent significant ‘social adjustment’ in the post-war age of austerity.[6] Despite, or perhaps because of, the critical outrage over these crime films, they seemed to perform well in the cinemas that did manage to programme them. Brighton Rock was the fourth most successful film released in the financial year 1947-48.

The fact that British cinema screens were erupting with previously-repressed images of violence and criminality, and that these images were produced by British filmmakers, seemed to be the root of the problem. Reviewers also commented on how the films had managed to evade the censors. The British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) was particularly unstable at this point; between 1946 and 1948, over half of their examiners and management tendered their resignations, with new appointments taking their place.[7] This liberalisation of attitude towards topical, controversial depictions of crime in the post-war period from the reincarnate BBFC drew short shrift from newspaper critics and politicians, as a moral panic over violence in British cinema gathered pace resulting, in the month following the release of No Orchids For Miss Blandish and Good-Time Girl, in the BBFC Secretary, Sidney Harris, stating that

the continued choice of stories of a brutal and sadistic nature, with their dependant [sic] incidents, can no longer be regarded as acceptable to large sections of the public… The Board will not, therefore, in future be able to grant its certificate to any film in which the story depends in any marked degree on the violent or sadistic behaviour of the characters or to allow in any film any incident in which there is recourse to needless violence.[8]

No Orchids

After almost a year of press controversies, the British film industry seemed ready to respond to this outcry from the press and the political establishment. On 6 May 1948, one month after the BBFC’s statement condemning violence in cinema, the scriptwriter Jan Read wrote to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Harold Scott proposing a feature-length film about the Metropolitan Police. He wrote that

We should not want to make another film like Night Beat, which as it seems to us, used the police as an excuse for yet another cops and robbers story about spivs and the East End. Our idea is to make something much more genuinely about the police force and policemen.[9]

Jan Read was clearly keen to distinguish his proposed police film from the moral-panic inducing British crime film cycle from the outset, identifying his potential project against the ‘spivs and the East End’ narratives so prevalent. This film would become The Blue Lamp, and here’s a clip.

The Blue Lamp was released in January 1950, and went on to be the biggest box office success of the year. The film’s success sounded the death knell for post-war British crime cinema. The Blue Lamp, unlike its spiv-film predecessors, focuses on the police’s strengths, grounding the representatives of law and order firmly within the communities within which they serve. Public taste had changed, and rationing was soon to end, bringing about the end of the black market. Police numbers were strengthened, and The Blue Lamp almost single-handedly changed the British public’s attitude towards the police.

Evening Standard Blue Lamp Cartoon

Unlike the retaliatory police procedurals co-produced by the Met, the crime films made in the late 1940s have aged remarkably well, and tonight’s screening choice of Brighton Rock – currently at number 15 on the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list – is testament to this. Despite the critical revulsion greeting the film’s release, it is now held up as one of the quintessential British productions, and I hope you enjoy the chance to see it on the big screen.

 

[1] James Chapman, ‘‘Sordidness, Corruption and Violence almost Unrelieved’: Critics, Censors and the Post-war British Crime Film’, Contemporary British History (Vol. 22, No 2), June 2008, pp.181-201, p. 182.

[2] Harry Hopkins observed that the ‘baffling’ co-existence of two opposing sides of British identity in the post-war period provides an example of ‘the perennial dialogue between the Puritan vein in the British character and the older, underlying, Rabelaisian vein; to some extent also – and this, too, was no new process in our history – the one England had given birth to the other’.Harry Hopkins, The New Look: A Social History of the Forties and Fifties in Britain (London: Martin Secker & Walburg Ltd, 1963) p. 97.

[3] Joan Lester, ‘Bold analysis of spivery’, Reynolds News, 4/1/48.

[4] Steve Chibnall has discussed the ‘critical vitriol’ which greeted Brighton Rock’s release by the popular press in some depth, including Reg Whitley’s remarkable diatribe in The Daily Mirror, which invoked a response from the author of the film’s source text, Graham Greene. See Steve Chibnall, Brighton Rock (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005), pp. 103-115.

[5] Elspeth Grant, ‘Teems with rain – and real life’, Daily Graphic 25/11/47; Dilys Powell, ‘Films of the Week’, Sunday Times 28/11/47.

[6] Chapman, 2008, pp. 185-6.

[7] Chapman, 2008, p. 187.

[8] Ibid., p. 194.

[9] MEPO 2/8342, Read to Scott, 6/5/48.

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