Britain, between the wars, and in Brighton the seaside town is suffering under the gangs which are doing their best to run the place in spite of the police's endeavours to stop them. Into this atmosphere steps Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), who has been there before and was wise to leave, because he is a wanted man, sought by the gang led by Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) to keep him quiet. His job has led him back, where he is a representative of a newspaper who the public must recognise for a cash prize - but it's Pinkie who finds him first.
Brighton Rock was one of author Graham Greene's so-called "entertainments", a down and dirty gangster yarn with a hefty dose of Catholic guilt for the main characters to labour under. Make no mistake, God was working in not so mysterious ways in this story, rubbing His hands together in anticipation of the teenage evildoer Pinkie bringing about his own damnation, the question being, who would he drag down with him? The prime candidate for that was Rose (Carol Marsh, who horror fans would recall from Hammer's groundbreaking Dracula around ten years later); she was a waitress who could incriminate him.
But there was less a threat of the police catching up with Pinkie - there's only one cop character and he's barely in one scene - and more the fiery pits of Hell opening up beneath his feet. For the script to Greene's now-classic novel the Boulting Brothers drafted in Terence Rattigan, a popular playwright of the day, but found his take on the material not quite what they wanted, so somewhat inevitably Greene was asked to supply his own rewrite which was the one the producer-director team, who were making a name for themselves in British movies, chose to go with. The result was a work which captured the grim, down at heel tone of the source and has gone on to be regarded as one of the finest of its type.
Well, apart from one aspect, and that was the ending. While at the time the movie received mixed reviews, even for Attenborough's expert performance which now looks like a perfect combination of youthful insolence and deadly steel, there was one thing everyone was united on: what did they do to the famous finale? Without giving too much away, it did seem to be going against everything that had happened before it in the previous ninety minutes, and looked it too, as the last scene had been tacked on to appease the censor. So all of a sudden the stern, unyielding God of the film turns into a big softy when He sees that Rose could end up more broken-hearted.
But if you could, try and ignore the letdown there and concentrate on how deftly the rest was handled. The Almighty's representative on Earth, or in Brighton at any rate, is Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley, never better), who turns detective when she struck up a brief relationship with the near-panic Hale, just before he was murdered on the ghost train. Consider the details that transform the cheery Brighton, then the destination for countless British holidaymakers, into a landscape of menace and violence, such as the giggling young women whose laughter turns uncertain, or the crying little girl who gets off the ghost train straight after Hale has been despatched: she didn't see the murder, but it's as if she recognised there was evil here. As Pinkie tries to hush up Rose by marrying her and planning more drastic action, the bodies pile up, and a sort of UK noir is achieved, helped hugely by the stark, dingy photography and striking staging. Brighton Rock was so close to classic that you could forgive that punchline. Music by Hans May.