Brighton Rock reconnects with the novel’s central theme of Catholic guilt
2011 remake addresses fight against Catholic/Christian upbringing
The new film version of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock reconnects with the novel’s central theme of Catholic guilt. Cinema needs more of it, writes Paul Dale
There’s nothing like the sense of contrition brought on by a fundamentally religious upbringing, and there’s nothing like Catholic guilt. For all its archaic Latin doctrine, extravagance and history of perverse sex scandals, the Catholic Church got one thing right. It created a philosophy of self-reproach so successful that great art flowered under the shadow of its lumbering, half-blind (from masturbation, obviously) form. From the paintings of Caravaggio and Velasquez and the scribblings of Balzac and Rabelais across the centuries to the films of Catholics Ford, Hitchcock, Bergman, Scorsese and Coppola, there is but one non-variable – Catholic guilt and the humanism born of it.
Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Graham Greene’s remarkable 1938 novel, Brighton Rock, about how one nasty little sociopath fights the profound moralities invested in him by a Catholic/Christian upbringing, rightly re-establishes this key credo. Something that was somewhat sidelined in Terence Rattigan’s 1947 adaptation of the book (which, nevertheless, resulted in one of the few interesting British post war noirs). It’s a wise move, as is the relocation of the story to the 1960s, into an age of youth gangs and seaside rucks. The thing about visiting the vast literary space that is ‘Greeneland’ is that it’s all open to interpretation, in everything but the dogma.
To understand this, it’s important to remember that from the mid-1930s until the early 1940s Greene was a film critic, arguably one of the very worst film critics of his time. He hated Hitchcock’s films but loved Charlie Chan and Perry Mason movies, and he eulogised prosaically about very ordinary crime pictures like They Drive By Night and The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. One of his favourite films was Julien Duvivier’s hopelessly overwrought (and now dated) Algiers-set thriller Pepe Le Moke starring France’s most bewildering pin-up Jean Gabin. You see, Greene would have hated the new Brighton Rock as much as he disliked many of the adaptations of his books (well those for which he’d not written the screenplay anyway). In short, his taste was abysmal, but from his time as a critic he took a feel for rhythm and a pulp sensibility that helped him write great books and screenplays that became great films, among them A Gun for Hire, Ministry of Fear and, of course, The Third Man.
What, however, marked Greene out from the thousands of other jobbing writers hanging around the fringes of the post-war American and British film studios was that stultifying sense of ethics and repentance that runs through both his very best and also his most mediocre works. Its draw is undeniable, it’s the same dance of guilt that leads us lapsed Catholics to obsess over new adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, or to constantly revisit Scorsese’s Mean Streets, or Abel Ferrara’s complete cinematic oeuvre, or Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, or John Ford’s The Searchers.
Western cinema was built on guilt – Jewish or Catholic, take your pick – it doesn’t matter, as they all eventually worked together to build a great cultural temple, founded on shame.
Brighton Rock, general release from Fri 4 Feb.