Good Melodrama


Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) was published when the author was thirty-four but reads like the creation of a teenaged genius, a British Arthur Rimbaud. A blood-and-thunder gangster yarn rippled by Roman Catholic theology, it’s written by someone with an eye as hungry as a camera (Greene was the film critic for the Spectator when he wrote it) but also with the virginal disgust for physicality, particularly for sex, that many teenagers feel when first negotiating puberty. Just a reflection of the seventeen-year-old protagonist’s warped mind? Perhaps, but even when the young gangster Pinky Brown (a Catholic who relishes his own damnation) is offstage, this disgust courses through the prose. Here’s Rose, a girl as innocent and needy as Pinky is solitary and malign. She’s watching a friendly landlady ascend stairs in a fetid boardinghouse: “Rose could see a dead white leg, like something which has lived underground, covered with russet hairs; a dingy slipper flapped a loose heel.” This literary close-up neatly maximizes the seediness of the locale, but the entire book overflows with things that are dead or dingy or both. At times I felt that Brighton Rock was written by Pinky.

Rose is in that boardinghouse because it’s Pinky’s headquarters. He’s just married her so she won’t testify against him for two murders he’s committed while trying to boss a small band of gangsters who offer “protection” to bookmakers in 1930s Brighton, a seaside...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.