One of the most sensational crime stories ever to come out of Great Britain was the 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bulger by a pair of ten-year-old truants in the suburbs of Liverpool. The killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, spotted little James wandering unattended in a shopping center, walked him several miles to a railway line, tortured him, and bludgeoned him to death with an iron bar, dropping his body on the tracks so that his death might be attributed to a train. The crime touched a nerve in the U.S. as well as the UK—probably because, like most violent offenses perpetrated by minors, it violated our dearly held view of childhood as a time of innocence. After a judge sentenced the boys to ten years in prison, a British tabloid collected 280,000 signatures on a petition demanding more jail time for them. Here in the States, right-wing commentators began kicking around the concept of the “superpredator,” a new breed of feral street child who killed without remorse.
British writer Graham Greene got a jump on this controversy back in 1938 when he published the classic crime novel Brighton Rock. Set in the seaside resort town of Brighton, it told the chilling tale of Pinkie Brown, a 17-year-old hood with ice water in his veins and a straight razor in his pocket. The junior member of a little crime outfit, Pinkie hungers for revenge after his mentor, Kite, is bumped off by a rival gang. Unable to get at them, he instead zeroes in on Hale, the man who ratted out Kite, and stalks him across town. Nowadays we’d probably consider Pinkie an adult, in temperament if not legal status. But back then, before the youth culture explosion of the 1950s and ’60s, readers would have been more inclined to regard Pinkie as only a boy. Greene takes ironic note of the character’s youth by having him murder Hale with a stick of hard candy—the Brighton Rock of the title, which Pinkie jams down the victim’s throat until he chokes to death.
Brighton Rock is generally regarded as Greene’s first masterpiece, and it’s the first to dwell on the Catholic themes that would come to define his work. In fact, Pinkie was probably less interesting to Greene as a juvenile delinquent—the kind of sociological specimen American playwright Sidney Kingsley presented in his 1935 drama Dead End—than as an example of original sin, the doctrine that we’re all born evil. Pinkie has been raised Roman Catholic, and when a fellow criminal asks him to define his beliefs, his response is a blasphemous inversion of the Apostles’ Creed: “Credo in unum Satanum,” he cracks (“I believe in one Satan”). Having murdered Hale, Pinkie understands he’s destined for hell, but for him the knowledge of damnation is liberating; now he can do as he pleases without worrying about the consequences.
As a writer, Greene could get away with this sort of overt theology because he was also a master of suspense, and the plot of Brighton Rock shows how brilliantly he could combine the two. Determined to erase any evidence of the murder, Pinkie manages to incriminate himself in front of a gullible young waitress named Rose; though she doesn’t yet understand the implications of what she’s seen, Pinkie pursues her romantically just so he can keep an eye on her. Eventually he even proposes marriage to the love-struck woman, knowing that a wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband in a court of law. Though Rose initially seems like a victim, by the end of the novel she becomes Pinkie’s opposite number, a Christlike character who comprehends his evil but refuses to stop loving him. Trying to talk some sense into her, an older woman remarks, “I don’t believe you’d lift a finger if he was killing you.” Rose replies, “Maybe I wouldn’t.”
Rowan Joffe, a British screenwriter (The American, 28 Weeks Later) debuting as director, hits some of these notes in his adaptation of Brighton Rock, but the movie’s religious flourishes seem more rhetorical than heartfelt. His big statement consists of moving the action up to spring 1964, when Brighton was invaded by mods and rockers who proceeded to kick the hell out of each other at the pier. If you’re familiar with this brief episode in English youth culture, you’ve probably listened to the Who’s overblown rock opera Quadrophenia or seen the excellent movie version of it directed by Frank Roddam in 1979. I’m still trying to figure out what mods have to do with Brighton Rock, and I can only guess that Joffe glommed onto the little town’s best known pop-culture credential in hope of connecting with a broader, or perhaps younger, international audience.
“The young have captured this ancient island and taken command in a country where youth has always before been kept properly in its place,” announces an old codger in a pub, reading from a newspaper account of mods and rockers clashing in another seaside town. Pinkie manages to score the ultimate mod accessory, a motor scooter with a gallery of rearview mirrors, and before long he’s dressing up in a sharp suit and donning a parka that his late mentor, Kite, brought back from combat in World War II. Heading out to the pier on his purloined scooter, he makes a quick left turn that conveniently places him at the apex of a cluster of mods, an image straight out of Quadrophenia. Joffe takes great pains to integrate his mod conceit into Greene’s story: when Pinkie, unwilling to remain properly in his place, betrays his gang’s now-senior member, a blustering old incompetent named Spicer, to their enemies, the rival gang’s razor attack against Spicer beneath the pier is subsumed by an epic brawl between the mods and rockers.
Back in the 1930s, when Brighton Rock first appeared, there was no such thing as youth culture, and even if there had been, Greene probably wouldn’t have given it any sort of weight in Pinkie’s emotional life. The whole point of the character was his complete lack of connection with anyone or anything—even Rose, who offers him a last chance of salvation. When James Bulger was murdered, pundits fell all over themselves searching for a societal cause—poverty, bad schools, violent video games. But Greene, a moral hard-ass if there ever was one, never supplied his readers with an easy explanation for his wicked child. Like all of us, he suggested, Pinkie was born with murder in his heart.