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'Brighton Rock' is a diamond-hard thriller

Richard Attenborough will scare the bejesus out of you in "Brighton Rock."

Screening this week in a new print at the Charles, this film from 1947 comes off as cutting-edge as the Millennium thrillers. That's not just because the antihero's favorite weapon is a straight razor. The film brings metaphoric dimensions to mob tensions that rival those in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets." And director John Boulting captures a rarely seen England — brash and vulgar — that's at once seedy and fresh.

The movie boasts a bad guy who really puts the "dead" back in deadpan. As Pinkie Brown, a teenage thug who leads a "razor gang" vying for control of the race course rackets in Brighton, England, Attenborough gives off a deep-freeze intensity that disarms his peers and unnerves audiences. His performance in "Brighton Rock" ranks with Richard Widmark's in "Kiss of Death." You can never get to the bottom of this character's villainy.

At his simplest, he's a rebel in his own mind against a ruling racket boss named Colleoni (Charles Goldner), who lets him know, in one shriveling scene, that Pinkie will never threaten him because Pinkie can't run his own gang like a business. The presence of a gangster whose name sounds like Corleone, stating that criminal activities are just business, makes you wonder whether Mario Puzo read the book or saw the movie right before he wrote " The Godfather."

But Pinkie is even more than a razor-wielding sadist who recklessly mixes gang warfare and personal vendettas. He is a true believer in good and evil: a Catholic who performs Luciferian acts of cruelty. He courts a waitress named Rose (Carol Marsh) because she can't testify against him once they're married. She's a Catholic, too. But that doesn't stop him from laying plans that would damn her to hell.

Based on Graham Greene's breakthrough novel and rewritten by Greene from a Terrence Rattigan script, this movie never won the international attention of the great Greene suspense films that followed, "The Fallen Idol" and "The Third Man."

It's overdue for a cult of its own.

Attenborough is superb throughout. He perfectly captures Pinkie's blend of solipsism and emotion; it's chilling to see the smugness that washes across Pinkie's face when he tells Colleoni he doesn't drink. But Marsh, in her one significant movie role, does the near-impossible. First she persuades you that Rose believes in Pinkie's love. Then she conveys Rose's nearly indomitable faith that their Catholicism transcends his earthly mayhem.

Marsh is an amazing camera subject. She can look dreadfully plain. But when she's all aglow with faith and love, her Rose becomes a genuine English rose.

She contrasts beautifully with Ida (Hermione Baddely), the brassy, big-hearted boardwalk singer who befriends an ill-fated newspaperman in the virtuoso opening sequence. If Ida can't prove to the police that Pinkie is guilty of two murders, she can at least warn Rose that she's in danger. But Ida, who represents a worldly, Mae West sort of wisdom, can't shake the girl's other-worldly devotion. "Brighton Rock" provides indelible portraits of evil in Pinkie, warped purity in Rose, and every other mix of vice and virtue or sin and grace on the moral spectrum.

In the 1940s and 1950s director Boulting switched between producing and directing chores with his brother Roy. The Boulting brothers won fame for a string of influential social comedies including "I'm All Right, Jack" (1959). Here John Boulting brings his best-known skill — colorful, whip-smart caricature — to a small-time rogues' gallery that includes a self-loathing, Shakespeare-spouting lawyer (played by Harcourt Williams, a master of fustian) and a shaky old-timer (Wylie Watson, who turns twitches into presentiments of doom).

Boulting pulls off jolting visual flourishes. A funhouse murder and a homicide in a stairwell deliver horror with inspired grotesquerie. But the film lives in its street-smart observations of Brighton's carnival surfaces and lower depths. Gilbert Taylor, who caught this film's turbulent images with hidden cameras in gritty locations, worked as camera operator to cinematographer Harry Waxman. As a full-fledged cinematographer himself, Taylor went on to shoot "Dr. Strangelove," "A Hard Day's Night," and " Star Wars," and the Baltimore-based thriller, "The Bedroom Window." In "Brighton Rock," he helped Boulting create a key "Brit noir" that's equally frightening at night and in the blaze of noon.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

"Brighton Rock" screens at noon on Saturday, 7 p.m. on Monday, and 9 p.m. on Thursday at the Charles, 1711 North Charles St. Tickets are $7.50-$9.50. Call 410-727-3456 or go to thecharles.com.

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