Saturday, January 18, 2014

Protection Racket of the Doctor

Tell all of my friends
(I don't have too many
Just some rain-coated lovers' puny brothers)
Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt
Rush to danger
Wind up nowhere

Those are lyrics from "Now My Heart is Full", a song by Morrissey. I've listened to it many times but never knew Dallow was the Doctor--the first Doctor or William Hartnell, anyway, in the 1947 film adaptation of Brighton Rock, a nice English film noir.

Even then he knew bow ties are cool. Just look where it got him.

Dallow, Spicer, and Pinkie are members of a gang operating in 1930s Brighton, a place, opening titles inform us, once steeped in crime which has all been cleaned up somehow by 1947.

Seventeen year old Pinkie (Richard Attenborough) is the leader of the gang despite the fact that Hartnell was thirty nine at this point. Hartnell comes off a bit like George Raft in the original version of Scarface--a cool headed enforcer, content to be second in command. And Hartnell is great in the role not only managing a good cockney accent but also exuding that threateningly indolent body language of a gangster. Better than Raft did, really.

Attenborough's performance is no less impressive as another kind of gangster, more like the kinds played by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, with a violent pride that mistrusts anything he can't control. He starts with one murder and continues killing and dissembling throughout the film in an attempt to make sure life stays simple.

One could say the film is about the foolishness of youth. Pinkie starts making time with a kind of heartbreakingly innocent teenage waitress, Rose (Carol Marsh), when it turns out she witnessed something that could damage his alibi for the first murder. She's never had a boyfriend and seems like she's led a pretty sheltered life up to this point. Marsh manages to give the character a credible excitement at the idea of being with this tight lipped, handsome young man she barely knows.

One of the things that makes this more of a film noir than the gangster films that influenced it is that the closest thing the movie has to a hero is a middle aged barfly and possible prostitute named Ida (Hermione Baddeley) who investigates the first murder Pinkie committed when the police won't listen to her suspicions. There's the suggestion that the police are too jaded to be more than passively disgusted by crime anymore, leaving it to Ida and her considerably more limited means to crusade for justice.

Which is ironic considering the intense paranoia felt by Pinkie. It's not hard to see the young man would have no trouble with the law at all if he simply didn't bother taking the violent and erratic tactics he takes in trying to cover his tracks. But that's a foolish youth, or one kind of one.

He and Rose have a conversation about religion when he sees a rosary fall out of her purse. It turns out they both have faith in teachings of the Catholic Church. Pinkie tells her he certainly believes in Hell but when she asks him about Heaven he seems to think the idea is ridiculous.

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