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From “The Worst Horror of All” to “I Love You”: Gender and Voice in the Cinematic Soundscapes of Brighton Rock

Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock famously concludes before the “worst horror of all” as the teenage Rose prepares to put a gramophone needle to a vulcanite disc that contains her dead husband’s last words. The devastating revelation promised by this gramophone aptly ends a novel in which microphones, loudspeakers, and radios detach voices from their sources to construct a multilayered soundscape. These voices and the technologies that disseminate them elide with the gendered tropes of classical cinema, though the sexual anxiety of Pinkie, the adolescent anti-hero at the heart of the novel, troubles familiar representations. Produced and directed by John and Roy Boulting from Greene’s and Terence Rafferty’s script, the 1947 film adaptation of Brighton Rock draws from this rich novelistic soundscape to render the gendered positions of its central characters even more ambiguous.1 The novel and 1947 film versions of Brighton Rock pose an intermedial challenge to the very classical cinematic soundscapes they invoke. These texts allow us to articulate how the recursive treatment of gender in the classical cinematic soundscape can be twisted through narrative demands and the ironies of adaptation.

Greene’s 1938 novel suggests the influence of sound cinema as it depicts the transformation of voice through audio technologies. Thus, the novel, which became (and was likely written as) a source text for film adaptation itself, resonates with the representational possibilities of sound cinema. André Bazin cites the 1947 film version of Brighton Rock as an example of the “ultracinematographic” that dialectically adopts a “novel-like style” (64). For Bazin, the “ultracinematographic” goes beyond questions of fidelity to evidence a cinematic “recouping . . . [of] what it has already lent the novel” in terms of form (64). Bazin specifically refers to visual form—montage, play with time—but Brighton Rock particularly illuminates the relationship between these media through soundscape. Recent interest in sonic modernity has inspired inquiry into the effect of sound film on novel form in the 1920s and 1930s.2 Laura Marcus, for instance, points out that Greene’s 1934 novel It’s a Battlefield as well as Brighton Rock evidence the influence of the sound cinematic medium (428-29). Given that many of Greene’s novels were adapted to sound film beginning with The Orient Express in 1934 and that he served as film critic for The Spectator throughout the 1930s, his work was particularly attuned to the medium.3 We can claim, as Marcus and J. M. Coetzee in his introduction to the recent Penguin edition of the novel suggest, that Greene composed Brighton Rock with an ear toward sound film, using disembodied voices and the forms of listening they demand to offer insight into character, build suspense, and precipitate action.

Brighton Rock, in both its novelistic and cinematic versions, follows the attempts of adolescent anti-hero Pinkie Brown to rise as a gang leader in interwar Brighton against an established criminal enterprise. He is pursued by the middle-aged, middle-class Ida Arnold after Pinkie’s gang kills a man with whom she has spent a brief afternoon. As a Catholic, Pinkie seeks radical individualism while facing his damnation. Rose, the young woman Pinkie marries so she cannot bear witness against him, has often been read as a masochistic character who belongs, like Pinkie, to what Terry Eagleton calls the “metaphysical elite” of Catholicism (32). Both Greene’s novel and the film integrate gritty realism with expressionist melodrama. While the novel incorporates multiple characters’ perspectives, giving Ida almost as much narrative time as Pinkie, the narrator weights the existential balance towards Pinkie and Rose’s worldview of good against evil as opposed to Ida’s secular morality of right and wrong. Jeffrey Sconce describes the novel’s attitude towards Ida as evincing a “gynophobic modernism,” or a “particularly modernist crisis over the place of man in relation to both women and the masses as threats to masculine energy and power” (56, 59). At the same time, Pinkie’s masculinity is quite fragile, as both his name and references to him as the “boy” unsubtly evidence. The triangle of Ida as oedipal mother, Pinkie as teenage criminal, and Rose as Pinkie’s inverted mirror—masochistic where he is sadistic, good where he is evil, heterosexual where he is asexual—generates gendered divisions in the novel that are indeed “gynophobic” but are also ambivalent towards any masculine ego ideal. The film, particularly in its revised ending at the gramophone, further amplifies this ambivalence.

Greene’s novel imagines these gendered relationships through a soundscape that at once realizes and revises Kaja Silverman’s influential definition of the gendering of voice in classical cinema. In The Acoustic Mirror, Silverman demonstrates how Hollywood sound film from the 1930s to the 1950s positions the disembodied male voice close to the cinematic apparatus as a site of “enunciation” and narrative control while female voices are synchronized, connected to the body. Thus, classical cinema associates the masculine with “voice-as-discursive-agent” and the feminine with “voice-as-being” (44). The adolescent anti-hero at the heart of both versions of Brighton Rock troubles the distinction between exteriorized, masculine narrative control and interiorized, embodied femininity. In the novel, voices not coincident with their sources exhibit the anxiety-provoking power of technologically disseminated voice, a power that, with the mass culture of the Brighton pier, also alludes to the rise of fascism through the 1930s. The Boulting brothers’ postwar film manifests this soundscape as the paranoia of its central character, his fear of subsumed masculinity. Bracketing Brighton Rock’s theological stakes for a moment, we can see both texts as a tale built around a character who can be defined in Jack Halberstam’s terms as the “male punk from whom a legacy of patriarchal and racial privilege has been withheld” (92). The figuring of this character refracts the gendered resonances of the classical cinematic soundscape. The first section of this article considers how the 1938 novel incorporates audio technologies to elucidate the gendered opposition of Pinkie and Ida through the audiovisual. In the second section, I turn to the 1947 sound film’s adaptation of this soundscape as it revises or excises several of the novel’s fraught passages depicting Pinkie’s peculiar aural reception of mass culture while further distinguishing Ida through voice. The final section addresses the most telling transformation from novel to film--the rewriting of the ending at the gramophone as it inverts the power dynamics of the novel’s conclusion and further calls into question the stability of gendered positions embedded in cinematic soundscape.

The Novel’s Disembodied Voices

The novel ties the power of a voice that exceeds its source to Pinkie’s sexual anxiety and his desire for discursive control. On two separate outings with Rose, for example, he encounters the technologically amplified voice of a male crooner. These passages emphasize how an audiovisual apparatus interpellates an audience into what Pinkie recognizes as the heterosexual “game.” On their first date, Pinkie takes Rose to the dance hall, Sherry’s, where the crooner’s ability to mesmerize an audience fascinates while the singer’s romantic lyrics repulse him. Before they enter the dance hall, the narrator notes that “[o]nly music made him [Pinkie] uneasy . . . . it was like nerves losing their freshness, it was like age coming on, other people’s experiences battering on the brain” (47). While he shirks what Valentine Cunningham defines, in his reading of popular music in the novels of the 1930s, as the “popular art of feeling, sentiment, crowd emotion,” Pinkie finds in the crooner an ideal of masculinity manifested through what the narrator calls an “inhuman” voice that “whistled around the gallery” (118, 53). Unlike the “two-backed beasts” of the dancing couples, the crooner embraces the media that disseminate his voice: “He held it [the microphone] tenderly as if he were embracing a woman . . . wooing it with his lips while from the loudspeaker under the gallery his whisper reverberated hoarsely over the hall, like a dictator announcing victory, like the news following a long censorship” (52). The narrative moves from this image into Pinkie’s aural perspective as the technologically enhanced power undergirding the crooner’s seductive voice and romantic lyrics draw his attention. Just as the microphone and loudspeaker magnify the crooner’s “whisper,” his lyrics are magnified in Pinkie’s mind as if they have come from within as well as without with their message of “inhuman” power alongside human romance. In this passage, the crooner’s voice exceeds signification and sonority as it reverberates through the dance hall and Pinkie’s consciousness. His voice aligns with Mladen Dolar’s Lacanian conception of voice as objet a, an “object of the drive” detached from both the meaning of words and the body that produces it. For Dolar, such a voice is “aphonic,” a “non-sonorous voice of pure enunciation . . . to which one has to supply the statement” (122). This voice might produce an “autonomous ‘I’” through “recognizing oneself as addressee of that call, which would be a version of His Master’s Voice issuing positive prescriptions” (122). In this passage, Pinkie receives the crooner on two levels; he is attracted to the power of enunciation that sounds through and beyond the crooner’s voice and repulsed by his message of heterosexual romance.

While he sings of heterosexual romance, the figure of the crooner, as Allison McCracken claims, exhibits an “autoeroticism” shaped by the integration of technological distance and intimacy (105). Pinkie’s perception of the crooner highlights the “autoerotic” power of the singer that counteracts his earlier disgust with music as a unifying resonance dissolving the boundaries between individuals. The crooner transcends the amorphous, feminized crowd that he transfixes. A critique of this audience is evident in the narrator’s description: “The crowd stood at attention . . . . They were dead quiet. It was like the anthem on Armistice Day when the King has deposited his wreath, the hats off, and the troops turned to stone. It was love of a kind, music of a kind, truth of a kind they listened to” (53). The novel represents a stupefied audience before a spectacle that offers only a “kind” of satisfaction, a fascinating but inadequate pageant like those at the end of a world war. In this passage, Pinkie stands out from the crowd in at once rejecting what he hears and attending to the aphonic excess and “autoerotic” control promised by the amplified voice of the crooner.

After Pinkie marries Rose, this figure appears a second time in the novel with a voice that again realizes and surpasses the heterosexual scripts of mass culture.  In this second encounter, he is projected on screen rather than performing live. The sound cinematic apparatus of the musical film, like the microphone and loudspeaker of the live performance, simultaneously amplifies and makes the crooner’s voice intimate.4 Given that this is Pinkie and Rose’s wedding night, the stakes of the romantic coupling of which the crooner sings are particularly high. As Marcus writes, this passage represents Hollywood film as “a machine whose sole function is to get a man and woman in bed together, but it is also one . . . whose sounds and sentiments have the power to make hard men weep” (430). The film exposes to a horrified Pinkie the sexuality underlying the heterosexual “game” with “thighs shot with studied care, esoteric beds shaped like winged coracles” (195). These Hollywood emblems of sexuality at once recall and contrast with Pinkie’s recollection of his parents’ copulation in their small flat and the restrictions of poverty that accompany procreation: “This was what happened to a man in the end: the stuffy room, the wakeful children, the Sunday night movements from the other bed. Was there no escape—anywhere?—for anyone? It was worth murdering a world” (97). Even as the film reveals an entrapping sexuality, it is Pinkie’s desire for the “autoerotic” freedom of the crooner that moves him to tears: “He sang again under the restless stars in a wash of incredible moonshine, and suddenly, inexplicably, the boy began to weep . . . . He felt constriction and saw—hopelessly out of reach—a limitless freedom” (196). Like his pursuer Ida, Pinkie cries at the movies. The novel presents this moment as no sentimental catharsis, though, but, rather, transcendence of origins, his invention of himself, despite the metaphysical risk of damnation. Just as the live performance of the crooner with his “inhuman” voice anticipates Pinkie’s decision to marry Rose so she cannot bear witness against him, the cinematic crooner’s performance presages his plan to murder her as a threat to his autonomy even as the musical film asserts the heterosexual desire that repulses him.

Within these spectacles of heterosexual romance, the novel exposes through Pinkie’s reception the crooner’s asexual masculinity and a drive towards discursive control. The narrator’s position towards these spectacles almost elides with Pinkie’s in the representation of a maudlin heterosexuality that also calls attention to the particular power of male voice undergirding and exceeding these scripts. The novel contrasts the technologies that enable this dissemination of voice before an audience--the microphone and loudspeaker and sound film apparatus--with the transmissions of radio as pervasive background noise. Against the “inhuman” voice of the crooner, radio is described as a “great vox humana . . .  the world’s wet mouth lamenting over life” (24). Given its immersive, atmospheric qualities, Sconce identifies radio as a feminized medium in the novel. Pinkie’s lawyer Prewitt, for example, cannot keep his neighbor’s Radio Luxembourg from permeating his room for “there was nothing anywhere to keep out sound” (226). While Pinkie cannily eavesdrops in the house where he lives with his gang, Prewitt demonstrates what Silverman calls an “auditory incompetence” as a listener subjected to sound rather than controlling his reception (56). Demanding listening as an ongoing, distracted state rather than an attentive action, radio is humanized and even feminized against the captivating power of the crooner’s voice. The novel thus distinguishes the technological dissemination of sound between an autoerotic masculinity and enveloping radio waves. These sonic emanations alternately move Pinkie and induce his paranoia.

Ida’s voice, like the crooner’s, commands Pinkie’s attention, but, like radio, her voice is pervasive and feminized. She defeats Pinkie through her overwhelming persistence as her voice echoes the crooner in belting out banal songs. At the beginning of the novel, the desperate Hale, hunted by Pinkie and his gang, first hears Ida as “a rich Guinness voice, a voice from a public bar,” singing well-known standards before he sees her (4). He finds her again on the pier a few pages later as “he heard a woman’s winey voice singing, singing of brides and bouquets, of lilies and mourning shrouds, a Victorian ballad . . . .” (13). While Hale welcomes this voice as potential salvation from Pinkie and his gang, Pinkie “was watching the woman with an expression of furious distaste” (6). Ida’s laugh as well as her singing haunts Pinkie throughout the novel. The narrator describes this laugh as “dry-eyed, uncaring, looking on the bright side . . . . saluting the bawdy joke in music halls . . . a good sportswoman’s laugh” (120). Ida’s disembodied singing and laughing voice, while it elicits Pinkie’s paranoia, is absorbed by the body in each instance when she is seen after she is heard. Lacking the technological apparatus of the crooner, Ida is ultimately identified with “voice-as-being” rather than “voice-as-discursive-agent” as her voice becomes synchronized with her fleshy, female body. Pinkie forms the central “point-of-audition” of Greene’s 1938 novel (Altman 251). In the case of his encounters with the crooner, the technologies that mediate the mass cultural scripts of heterosexual romance which are so repulsive to him (and the novel’s narrator) also offer an audiovision of insular, commanding masculinity. Ida’s haunting voice reflects the scripts of the crooner, but her feminine embodiment finds its primary technological analogue in the pervasive “vox humana” of radio. The soundscape of the novel, with its gendered representations of audio technologies and the voices they carry, looks forward to its sound cinematic adaptation.

The Audiovision of the Film Adaptation

The first film adaptation of Brighton Rock, released almost ten years after the publication of the novel by Associated British Picture Corporation in early 1948, would, as Steve Chibnall notes, have been recognized by audiences as a part of a popular postwar subgenre of British gangster films, the “spiv” films, rather than as an adaptation of Greene’s interwar novel (11). Nevertheless, Greene had a direct hand in the adaptation in revising and expanding Terence Rafferty’s initial treatment. Like the novel, the Boulting brothers’ film presents a soundscape realizing the power of voice primarily through Pinkie’s point-of-audition. At the same time, the adaptation transforms the first scene with the crooner (and excises the second) and, most importantly, changes the ending to invert the novel’s conclusion on the “worst horror of all”—Pinkie’s disembodied voice on the gramophone (269). Drawing from the novel’s gendering of voice and audio technologies, the film adaptation realizes a soundscape that challenges the very gendered positions it constructs.

Greene’s third shooting script reimagines Pinkie’s encounter with the crooner as remarkably similar to the scene in the novel. Greene writes of the crooner in this script, “He sings ‘More Than Ever.’ He holds the microphone tenderly as if it were a woman . . . . The music gets her. The music gets him too” (34). The script then prescribes “a tracking shot along the faces of the audience” that reveals “[t]he atmosphere [that] resembles Armistice Day when the King has placed his wreath and the troops stand as if turned to stone” (34). The film realizes this scene quite differently however. It begins with a crane shot that tracks over a big band orchestra rather than a rapt audience to focus on the young female singer Constance Smith singing “More Than Ever,” a song written specifically for the film by Leslie Julian Jones. The camera then tracks back across dancing couples and finally cuts to a medium long shot of Pinkie and Rose at a table beside the dance floor. The camera’s fascination with the female singer replaces Pinkie’s troubled engagement with the male crooner in the novel (see Figure 1). The film highlights this scene with elaborate tracking shots, but, in narrative terms, this moment indulges nostalgia for the 1930s (the decade in which the film sets the narrative) and becomes mere background for Pinkie and Rose’s conversation about love, Catholicism, and salvation. In this revision, the film loses the novel’s audiovisual call to power as well as the critique of the heterosexual scripts underlying mass culture implicit in that call.

From “The Worst Horror of All” to “I Love You”: Gender and Voice in the Cinematic Soundscapes of Brighton Rock
 Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Singer Constance Smith takes the place of the male crooner described in the novel and film script.

While it transforms or cuts both of the novel’s encounters with the crooner, the film emphasizes Ida’s disembodied singing and laughing voice as a threat to Pinkie. It highlights Pinkie’s defensive, paranoid listening as his character vacillates between “auditory competence”—sneaking around doorways and foyers in the gang’s house to overhear conversations before he reveals himself—and his increasing “auditory incompetence,” his subjection to sound heralded by Ida’s hearty laugh (Silverman 56). Early in the film, Pinkie and his gang confront the ill-fated Hale in a bar to the diegetic background noise of laughter and faint singing. Pinkie, between gang members Dallow and Cubbitt, becomes distracted, turning in profile towards something still invisible and not wholly audible to the spectator. With a cut to focus on Pinkie, he swivels forward to demand, “Won’t anyone shut that brass’s mouth?” The film then cuts to the first sighting (and hearing) of Ida, her back turned, singing loudly, surrounded by men (see Figure 2). She remains a voice without a face until Hale meets her in the next scene at another bar. The film further identifies her with a characteristic cackle. When they meet again on the pier after their outing at Sherry’s, Rose describes Ida to Pinkie as “a big woman with a big laugh. You should have heard that laugh.” Ida’s laugh, heard off-screen before the camera moves to a close-up of her face during her performance on the pier, proceeds to threaten Pinkie and Rose (see Figure 3). The film transforms Ida from barfly to performing pierrot, and Greene’s shooting script emphasizes her connection with the male crooner as she is also slated to sing “More Than Ever” on the pier (though in the film she sings a different song). As in the novel, however, her voice in the film indexes an aging, female body that becomes visible to the listener after she is heard.

From “The Worst Horror of All” to “I Love You”: Gender and Voice in the Cinematic Soundscapes of Brighton Rock
 Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Ida is first shown singing with her back to the camera.
From “The Worst Horror of All” to “I Love You”: Gender and Voice in the Cinematic Soundscapes of Brighton Rock
 Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Ida is shown in close-up performing as a clown on the pier. She is again visually revealed after her voice, inducing Pinkie's paranoia, is heard.

Ida’s haunting voice anticipates Pinkie’s increasing subjection to noise in the film. After he reads Rose’s written confession of love for him towards the end of the film, for example, he hears a baby wailing through the window, a sound that grows increasingly louder until he shuts the window and blots it out; unlike his lawyer Prewitt held captive to his neighbor’s radio, Pinkie still has some control over what he hears. This moment echoes the sound film passage in the novel in revealing Rose’s desire to have a family as a threat to Pinkie’s autonomy. Pursued by Ida’s need to hold him accountable, the heterosexual demands of his marriage to Rose, and the dominance of established Brighton gangster Colleoni, the inevitable failure of Pinkie’s desire for radical autonomy towards the ending of the film is given auditory expression in the confining domestic space of the bedroom. As he is threatened with incorporation into the scripts of others, Pinkie’s listening reflects his failure to obtain the power he desires. As in the novel, the asexual adolescent at the heart of the film introduces a gendered ambivalence into the soundscape. By the end, Pinkie is the auditory focal point of the narrative as expressionist male anti-hero and, at the same time, what he hears reveals his increasing entrapment within the narratives of the other characters. At the conclusion, the film adaptation further emphasizes this entrapment in revising the novel’s ending with its resuscitation of Pinkie as voice.

Technological Malfunction and the Inverted Ending from Novel to Film

As it features audio technologies that mediate voice throughout, the 1938 source text of Brighton Rock shows how sound film informs the novel in the 1930’s. The 1947 film adaptation, in turn, while excising some of the novel’s intensive scenes of listening, adopts a soundscape that exhibits Pinkie’s failure to achieve discursive control. The film’s revision of the novel’s ending, the adaptation’s most telling distinction, further emphasizes this failure. While the conclusion of the novel transforms Pinkie into a disembodied voice with a script-shattering message for Rose, the film more ambiguously suggests that he may be fully interpellated into her narrative, further undermining his discursive control. The novel ends with a suspension before Rose’s experience of the “worst horror of all” on the gramophone (269). Pinkie’s message to Rose, which he records in a soundproof booth on their wedding day upon her request and to which the reader is privy as Rose looks in from outside, is not the memorial of love she desires. Instead, Pinkie states, “God damn you, you little bitch, why can’t you go home forever and let me be?” (193). Rose cannot find an apparatus to play back his inscribed voice until after his death, and the inert disc maintains the power to shatter the script of romantic coupling to which she adheres (see Figure 4).

From “The Worst Horror of All” to “I Love You”: Gender and Voice in the Cinematic Soundscapes of Brighton Rock
 Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Pinkie records the damning record for Rose in a soundproof booth.

On this gramophone record, Pinkie’s voice becomes, to borrow Michel Chion’s term, “acousmatized,” disembodied. For Chion, “acousmatic” voice “creates a mystery of the nature of its source, its properties and powers” (72). “De-acousmatization,” on the other hand, is an “unveiling process” that “goes hand in hand with his [a character’s] descent into a human, ordinary, and vulnerable fate” (131). As it ends before Pinkie’s inscribed voice, the novel inverts the sound cinematic convention of a powerful acousmatic voice revealed like the Wizard of Oz shown behind the curtain. When Rose puts a needle on the record, Pinkie’s voice is at once unveiled as she is finally able to hear his confession of hatred and veiled as it lacks a present, embodied source. Pinkie’s voice acquires an acousmatic power and uncanny valence following his death. The voice survives the body, a material ghost asserting Pinkie’s power against Rose’s expectations. His soul, as the priest famously states at the end of the novel, might be anywhere, thanks to God’s incomprehensible mercy, but this confessed interiority is what remains of his worldly presence. This message is also uncanny as it turns notions of domesticity inside out. In opposition to the heterosexual couple narrative, the record reveals both misogynistic dread and an individualist refusal of class identification. Pinkie’s demand that Rose “go home forever” (193) is a proclamation that references her gender and their shared impoverished upbringing as home represents at once a space of feminine investment and, given that they were raised in the slums of Brighton, a socioeconomic prison. The novel ends right before Pinkie gets the last word, destroying Rose’s narrative of their love with its theological and romantic stakes.

To realize this uncanny moment giving lie to the heterosexual couple narrative, the novel turns to the inscriptive technology of the gramophone to move from the question of the metaphysics of a soul to the materiality of a message. It inscribes Rose within the narrative of heterosexual coupling from which Pinkie aims to free himself. She is “stamped with [Pinkie] as his voice was stamped on the vulcanite” (213). When Rose finally finds a device that shifts the disc from storage to payback, Pinkie obtains a final freedom in exteriorizing his refusal of the romance narrative. His message reveals the contrast between his desire for power and Rose’s reproductive fantasy of “raising an army of friends for Pinkie” (218). Through the gramophone, the novel also moves from passages focused on collective listening—the crooner’s performance, the sound film, enveloping radio waves—to the privacy of the home. While Pinkie’s attentive listening to the crooner fails to interpellate him into the heterosexual couple narrative, but, rather, results in his mimetic identification with the power of the singer, the conclusion of the novel shatters Rose’s script. Pinkie grabs the narrative power to defy Rose’s desire to save him or be damned with him.

As it detaches voice from the body, the gramophone record at the end of the novel further harkens back to the uncanniness of voice itself in the transition from silent to sound film a decade earlier. Robert Spadoni claims that a “return of medium sensitivity” defined this transition when the representational techniques and technologies of sound cinema were still indeterminate (17). Considering how the introduction of voice transformed cinematic perception through horror films in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Spadoni notes that the incorporation of voice into image rendered the cinematic body ghostly, revealing, as Greene writes in a 1928 critique of early sound film, images “as the flat photographs they are” in calling attention to the distinction between the cinematic image and the living body (393). At the same time, Spadoni claims, the introduction of voice was perceived as making the screen body a “living human corpse” with the not entirely coincident materiality of its voice (26). By the time he composed Brighton Rock ten years after this transitional period, Greene, as shown by his Spectator reviews, was habituated to sound film as a developed medium. Nonetheless, the ending of Brighton Rock at the gramophone highlights the divisibility of voice and body and emphasizes the affective and narrative strength of disembodied voice, suggesting an afterlife to the uncanny possibilities of sound film in its transitional phase.

This unsettling ending troubled both the novel’s 1943 theatrical adaptation and its 1947 film adaptation with its suggestion of Rose’s devastation and Pinkie’s posthumous power. While the ending of the play was changed in different performances, the conclusion at the gramophone was cut. Greene was particularly upset by an early run ending in which Ida cares for Rose, writing, “Ida is the real villain of the piece . . . . The last part of the book did more than anything else to get it under people’s skin” (qtd. in Chibnall 20). Despite Greene’s insistence, the original ending was likely never reinstated by the time the play premiered on the West End (Chibnall 20). As with the theatrical adaptation, Terence Rafferty, in his initial screen treatment, transformed the ending at the gramophone and again put Rose in Ida’s care. Drawing from Rafferty’s transformation at the gramophone but cutting Ida from the end, Greene’s subsequent revision split the difference by reimagining the conclusion at the gramophone as a potentially happy ending for Rose. The film adaptation’s revised conclusion renders the novel’s ending with Pinkie’s destruction of Rose’s narrative of heterosexual coupling much more ambivalent.

The film adaptation ends not with the promise of Pinkie’s posthumous revelation, but, rather, with a needle stick. In the final sequence, Rose insists to a nun in what appears to be a church-run home that Pinkie loved her, stating, “You don’t know a thing about love. I know. I’ve got proof. I’ve got his voice . . . I’ll show you he loved me.” After she announces to the nun that she’s got the “proof” of his voice, the camera zooms in on a close-up of the gramophone with the record turning (see Figure 5). Pinkie’s voice on the record proclaims, as the film cuts to a medium shot of an expectantly listening Rose, “You asked me to make a record of my voice and here it is. What you want me to say is ‘I love you . . . ’” (see Figure 6). The needle sticks and the voice repeats, “I love you, I love you.” In an interview, Greene claims that he rewrote this ending to please all spectators: “I thought most people would think, ‘Well next time she’ll move the needle and get the message.’ But those who wanted a happy ending would have it” (545). Unlike the overwrought Catholic imagery that accompanies this concluding sequence, the nun and final shot of a crucifix, Greene owns an ending that has it both ways in giving Rose what she wants to hear while promising a potential future horror.

From “The Worst Horror of All” to “I Love You”: Gender and Voice in the Cinematic Soundscapes of Brighton Rock
 Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 5: The suspense-inducing gramophone is highlighted with a close-up.
From “The Worst Horror of All” to “I Love You”: Gender and Voice in the Cinematic Soundscapes of Brighton Rock
 Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Rose listens to the gramophone needle stick on "I love you.”

Pinkie’s message in the novel becomes in the conclusion of the film undermined by technological malfunction. He is ultimately, if momentarily, interpellated into the narrative of heterosexual coupling he tries to ward off earlier in the film when he shuts the window on the crying baby. His adolescent asexuality transforms into the specter of heterosexual reciprocity by the accident of a possibly happy ending. The crooner’s message has incorporated him after all through the failure of playback and the desire of a young woman intently listening in. In this revised ending, Rose maintains some control over her narrative, though she is still entrapped by her gender and class background as she has wound up in an institution (in the novel, she inadvertently follows Pinkie’s directive and returns to her impoverished home). In allowing Rose to hear what she wants to hear, the film’s revised ending ironically resonates with Greene’s critique of the Hollywood regime that adapted so many of his novels. In his 1937 article “Film Lunch,” despairing over MGM’s decision to make movies in Britain, Greene protests the heterosexual automatism of Hollywood, writing, “[M]oney for no thought, for the banal situation and inhuman romance: money for forgetting how people live: money for . . . ‘I love, I love, I love’ endlessly repeated” (421).6 Ten years later, this repetition appears through an acousmetric voice at once impotent and possessing the power to destroy such mass cultural scripts.

Written in anticipation of sound film adaptation, the novel version of Brighton Rock complicates the relationship between writing and speech exposed through representations of the gramophone in the early twentieth-century novel. The gramophone in Brighton Rock, for example, does not serve as the agent of vocal interruption that initiates graphemic and phonemic disintegration as it is does in Jacques Derrida’s reading of gramophonic stuttering in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Instead, the gramophone at the conclusion of Greene’s novel adopts techniques from the converging narrative medium of sound cinema. If the gramophone appears in earlier literary texts as an alternative mode of inscription that disrupts the novel through its direct writing of voice, then the gramophone record imagined in the novel version of Brighton Rock conversely exposes a writing that anticipates speech and renews through voice the power of a central character. The ending of the film, on the other hand, domesticates the inscribed, disembodied, male voice promised in the novel.


The 1938 novel version of Brighton Rock listens out across narrative media to adopt sound cinematic techniques in its representations of disembodied voice. The novel’s construction of scenes of attentive, anxious, and distracted listening through various media emphasize this audiovisual influence. The Boutling brothers’ 1947 cinematic adaptation highlights the novel’s gendering of voice and listening even as it radically revises the soundscape through an ambiguous ending. This iterative relationship between interwar novel and postwar sound film enables us to reconsider the connection between voice, enunciative power, and gender in classical cinema as Brighton Rock in both its novelistic and cinematic iterations simultaneously engages and transforms this classical soundscape around its adolescent, asexual anti-hero pursued by women. In 2010, Brighton Rock was again adapted to film. Directed by Rowan Joffé and released by Studio Canal, the 2010 version sets the story in a 1964 Brighton with its conflicts between youth gangs of mods and rockers. The 2010 film ends with a pregnant Rose lying on a bed in what appears to be a home for abandoned mothers. She puts the needle to the gramophone, and, as in the 1947 film, it sticks on “I love you.” The 2010 version further extends the irony of the 1947 film’s ending in paralleling Rose’s pregnancy--this heterosexual reproduction--with the mechanical reproduction of Pinkie on the recording as he again inadvertently reproduces the love story he attempts to resist. Illuminated through adaptation, such mediations trouble the relationship between disembodied voice and masculine narrative control that has defined the classical cinematic soundscape.


1 The novel was first adapted into a play by Frank Harvey in 1943 before the Boulting brothers’ 1947 film which finished shooting in 1947 but was released in England in January of 1948. Terence Rattigan wrote the initial treatment of the film from Greene’s novel (rather than the stage play), but Greene significantly rewrote the script in subsequent drafts. Brighton Rock continues to invite adaptation into the audiovisual modes of live performance and cinema with a 2004 musical composed by John Barry with lyrics by Don Black and another film adaptation directed by Rowan Joffé in 2010.

2 Tim Armstrong, Michael North, and Laura Marcus, for example, have explored modernist writers’ resistance to sound film in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There has been less consideration of the reciprocal relationship between literature and sound film in the 1930s, though the example of William Faulkner explored by Jay Watson and Sarah Gleeson-White has proven particularly rich given his career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Greene’s experimentation with sound in his novels of the 1930s, to which Marcus gestures, offers further insight in this area.

3 How Greene’s involvement with cinema as critic and, beginning with Brighton Rock, screenwriter, influenced his novels has been widely debated, particularly as, while most of his novels were adapted to film or television, he wrote few screenplays. Greene’s own statements on the cinematicity of his novels are contradictory. He claims, on the one hand, that “my books don’t make good films” and, on the other, that “[w]hen I describe a scene, I capture it with the moving eye of the cine-camera rather than with the photographer’s eye—which leaves it frozen” (qtd. in Parkinson xxxii).

4 Marcus and David Trotter have connected the on-screen crooner in Brighton Rock’s honeymoon film to Greene’s review of John Boles’s performance in The Rose of the Rancho (1936). In each case, the on-screen crooner is described as having a “lick of black hair” across a “white waste of face.” The review evidences Greene’s repulsion at such a figure which might also be read through the narrator’s perspective in Brighton Rock.

5 Mae West was the ostensible prototype for Ida (Sherry 291). For Greene, West performs an overwhelming, embodied femininity. He describes her in a 1936 review of Klondyke Annie as a “big-busted carnivorous creature . . . . ” (103). In this review, Greene is much more forgiving of West than Ida however. He writes, albeit with a tongue-in-cheek tone, that he is “completely uncritical” of her, greatly enjoying her films while “aware all the time . . . of that bowler-hat brigade gathered invisibly like seraphs around her stout, matronly figure” (103).

6 The Boultings in fact wound up renting the MGM sound stage in Britain to shoot more elaborate scenes of Brighton Rock like those in the hotel and dance hall.

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