To everything there is a season, and this is incontestably the time for a newly minted, previously unexamined genre called Brit Noir.
Short for British film noir, Brit Noir hit the domestic cinema consciousness last August when New York’s Film Forum ran a comprehensive 44-film series that featured guns, gangsters and all the film noir staples, a treasure-trove of Anglo-Saxon genre mayhem that had been largely unknown in this country.
UCLA’s Film and Television Archive followed up shortly after with its “Footsteps and Fog” retrospective and now Rialto Pictures is pitching in with a five-film “Best of British Noir” series running for a full week of exemplary double bills starting Friday night at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. It’s a chance to catch up on familiar classics as well as films that are equally worthy but less well-known.
Carol Reed’s iconic but always welcome “The Third Man,” one of the most memorable films ever made, is a familiar item that shares Friday’s opening double bill. Based on Graham Greene’s celebrated screenplay, it stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in a vivid tale of willful innocence and cunning amorality. Made in 1949, it hasn’t aged a day and likely never will.
Equally familiar is another Greene/Reed collaboration, “The Fallen Idol.” A cast top-lined by the faultless Ralph Richardson, an actor with a brilliantly equivocal presence, turned a story involving adult secrets and childhood fantasies into a film that boasts moral complexity as well as psychological acuity.
Then there is “Peeping Tom,” one of the most strangely twisted of motion pictures. The uproar that greeted its release in the Britain of 1960 all but ended the career of universally admired director Michael Powell, previously responsible for “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus.” In part a film about voyeurism and murder, it’s also quite consciously about the moviemaking and moviegoing experiences, a picture that functions as a cautionary tale for the film addict in all of us.
Greene was also the writer for one of the two splendid but less familiar films in the series, 1947’s “Brighton Rock,” which shares opening night billing with “The Third Man.”
Those who think of Richard Attenborough as the revered director of “Gandhi” will be shocked to see him here in a compelling performance as the implacable, psychotic Pinkie, an all-sinister-all-the-time teenage gang leader based in the seaside vacation town of Brighton who’s given to the worst kind of ruthless behavior.
When an associate who betrayed him comes back to town, Pinkie is compelled to try to rub him out, but circumstances make that difficult for a man saddled with inept accomplices. Complicating things still further is sweet waitress Rose (Carol Marsh, selected from 2,000 who auditioned for the part). When Rose boasts that she “never forgets a face,” she puts her life in a collision course with the young thug.
As much a star as Attenborough is Brighton’s seedy ambience, put to excellent use. Shot on location by cinematographer Harry Waxman, who expertly employed natural light, the film all but glistens in this restored 35 mm print, capturing the “dark alleyways and festering slums” that hide behind the holiday seaside atmosphere.
Directed by John Boulting, “Brighton Rock” also has a strong Catholic context, not surprising given Greene’s religious passions. Pinkie not only believes in hell’s torments, he lives them, and the movie’s theme is best expressed by the line near the end that references “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Greene himself was pleased with the final version, writing to Boulting, “this is the first time I have seen one of my own books on the screen with any real pleasure.”
Even less known and in some ways more interesting is the despairingly titled “It Always Rains on Sunday,” another 1947 film directed by Robert Hamer.
Though it has noir elements, “It Always Rains” expands from that base to become a fatalistic look at intersecting lives in a very particular community, the Bethnal Green area of London’s then-Jewish East End. It’s a film about the overlap of public and private lives, about what happens when something exposes the gap between who we are and who we pretend to be.
At the center of the film is Googie Withers as a woman in a loveless marriage that includes two grown stepdaughters. Into her life comes John McCallum’s escaped convict, an old flame on the run. Also complicating things are the romantic difficulties of those stepdaughters and the problems of others in this simultaneously suffocating and supportive neighborhood.
If Brighton Rock is all about Catholicism, this film is indisputably Jewish. Yiddish is sprinkled throughout the dialogue.
Though embraced by French writers such as critic/director Bertrand Tavernier, who called it “a brilliantly written choral work,” like many of the Brit noir films, “It Always Rains” was rejected by the British establishment. The movie, however, has survived.