gangsters and guilt

as part of the paramount theater's summer film series tonight they screened a pair of my favorite films noir from the UK, brighton rock (1947) and odd man out (1947). neither of these are in print on region 1 dvd, so it was quite the treat to get to experience them at all, much less on the big screen.

brighton rock was first on the bill and wasted no time in getting to the crime. after a whirlwind introduction to the seaside charms of brighton, we are thrown right into a deadly game of cat and mouse between a reporter and a gang of hoods led by pinkie brown. richard attenborough's performance as pinkie is one of the screen's great sociopaths. strangely free, and intolerant, of traditional vice, he does not balk at the violence necessary to run his grubby little mob.

there are two great forces at work in pinkie's life.

one - feelings of inadequacy that manifest themselves in the most napoleonic ways. he is small time. he knows it in his heart. he stinks of it. he is doomed to the purgatory of his reach forever exceeding his grasp. to call what he does overcompensation would be diplomatic.

funny i should mention purgatory because...

two - the ol' catholic church. it looms over this film like a crow. it is no accident that the pivotal crime takes place on an infernal (literally) carnival ride. crucifixes abound. the most profound conversation pinkie has with rose, the waitress he courts to keep out of the witness box, is instigated when she drops her rosary. the moral ambiguity that is the core of noir is even more troublesome when you inject this overwhelming dose of religion. typically in noir, no one is particularly innocent. now they need to go to confession as well.

pinkie tries, and fails, to keep his infinitesimal empire in order. the fear and (usually dormant) nobility of his cohorts impede him. the braying, insistent sleuthing of ida impedes him. most tellingly, he impedes himself by simply never knowing when to quit. he can't resist cutting a deal with a rival gangster that ends up getting him cut. he can't resist cutting a record that could be evidence when rose asks him to record his voice for her.

and, of course, he goes the way of all small time hoods. full circle. ah, the purifying waters.

and how about that denouement? rose sits on her bed, sobbing, roundly rejecting the notion of absolution. and what does the nun at her side say? "you or i cannot fathom the appalling strangeness of the mercy of god". you can say that again, sister! this is proven almost immediately, as god's grace shows up as a scratch on a phonograph record. the end. amen.

next up was carol reed's odd man out. james mason is excellent in this as the leader of a group very much like the IRA in a city very much like belfast, though neither is stated outright.

escaped from prison, and having been in hiding for several months, he organizes a raid on a mill to gather funds to finance the group's activities. things go awry, as they are wont to do, a man is killed and mason's character, johnny, is gravely wounded in the melee. in the chaos of the getaway, johnny is left behind by his cowardly, incompetent accomplices and thus begins the longest twelve hours of his life.

i actually enjoyed this film more, overall. it was just as fraught with the ambiguities of the catholic x/y axis of good and evil, but added to that was a much more intriguing and complicated question of loyalty and allegiance raised by the day to day realities of the IRA and their struggle. as johnny goes on his bizarre odyssey, there are a number of characters with a vested interest in his fate. first and foremost, there is kathleen, the woman who loves him. she is told more than once to remember that johnny does not belong to her. he belongs to the glorious cause, the law and to god, but not to her. father tom simply wants to hear his confession and offer him comfort. the police want their pound of flesh. shell, the bird-fancying reprobate is working the reward angle. lukey wants to paint him, as he imagines he will find something in a dying man's eyes that no ordinary model can offer. he runs across all these characters, and more, and not a single one finds his situation to be black and white. he has committed murder - accidentally, granted - but not one civilian is willing to condemn him.

ultimately, he finds his way into kathleen's arms again and she proves to everyone just exactly how much they were wrong in claiming that johnny didn't belong to her. the beautiful, inescapably bleak ending made me think of james joyce. "...he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead". shattering.

these are definitely worth your time, especially if you are a noir fan. UK noir has a tone you don't find in its US counterparts. over here, we are used to the knight errant and his isolation. we are accustomed to little man who made a huge mistake. these films are something else entirely. these films are bursting with people and activity. they take the usual moral quandaries of the hardboiled and expand them to find room for god amidst the gangsters. they add politics so tangled that one hundred raymond chandlers at one hundred typewriters would still be working it out.

austinites, you still have thursday to catch these. i highly recommend you do. you won't get the chance to see them, especially this way, very often. odd man out starts at 7 p.m., brighton rock follows at 9:20.

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