Cash on Demand

Posted on December 9th, 2010 in 1960s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Cushing by Colin

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Well it’s almost that time of year again. Therefore, it’s also time to feature a few films that in one way or another relate to Christmas. Aside from the big, traditional crowd pleasers it’s always nice to give a bit of attention to those other movies that can sometimes get lost in the mix. Cash on Demand (1961) is a good example - an obscure little Hammer production whose reputation ought to rise now that it’s finally available to view on DVD. It’s a tight and incredibly suspenseful little thriller that skilfully weaves a seasonal message into the tense plot and leaves the viewer feeling satisfied.   

It’s December 23rd and a small provincial bank is opening up and preparing to welcome the first customers of a wintry day. The staff arrive one by one and greet each other in the familiar and informal way of those long accustomed to working together. Thoughts run to the upcoming staff party and the atmosphere is warm and cosy. However, the arrival of the branch manager, Fordyce (Peter Cushing), causes a definite chill to settle over the establishment. Fordyce is a fastidious and uptight man, almost to the point of caricature. His overwhelming sense of propriety not only dampens the pre-Christmas humour of his subordinates, but leaves them feeling both threatened and vulnerable. A minor error on the part of one of the staff is latched onto and blown out of all proportion. Fordyce even goes so far as to declare that he’ll have to seriously consider the future of this long serving employee. The whole dynamic changes, however, with the unexpected arrival of an insurance company representative, Colonel Gore Hepburn (Andre Morell). Hepburn explains he is on a tour of the banks covered by his company in order to inspect their security arrangements due to the increased risk of robberies. In fact, Hepburn is not all he claims to be, and it soon transpires that he is merely using this cover story as a means to gain access to the bank and carry out a raid on the well stocked vault that is both audacious and ruthless in its execution. From this point on the story turns into a psychological duel between Fordyce and Hepburn, with the latter rarely relinquishing the upper hand. This all plays out both as a straight thriller and a new spin on the Scrooge story, with Hepburn’s tormenting of Fordyce serving the dual purpose of facilitating his co-operation while also teaching the fussy branch manager an object lesson in the importance of charity towards his fellow man. It could be argued that the ending cops out, but I’d say that were it not to finish up the way it does then the story’s whole point would be lost - and with it much of the magic that distinguishes the movie from countless other heist pictures.

A spanner in the works - Peter Cushing and Andre Morell in Cash on Demand.

Although director Quentin Lawrence made a handful of cinema features the bulk of his work was in TV, and that background actually serves him well here. The tighter pacing and limited sets common to the small screen are to the fore in this movie. The action (which is essentially played out in real time) is for the most part confined to the bank, and particularly Fordyce’s office and the underground vault. While I wouldn’t exactly call it claustrophobic, it does have the effect of focusing the attention on the actors. Not wishing to take anything away from the support cast, but this is basically a two-hander between Cushing and Morell. The pair had formed a successful partnership two years earlier in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and this film gave them the opportunity to team up again, albeit in very different roles. Cushing’s portrayal of Fordyce is really spot on, all icy efficiency and repressed emotion at the beginning but gradually cracking under the enormous pressure to reveal a lonely soul who elicits genuine sympathy. There’s nothing fake about the transformation in Fordyce’s character, the change of perception coming about slowly and convincingly as Hepburn mercilessly strips away the veneer to expose the true man. If anything Andre Morell just about trumps Cushing’s work in this one. He plays Hepburn as suave, smart, hearty, calculating, ruthless and wry - often all within a single short scene, and always with absolute conviction. The result of all this is that the viewer’s sympathy is continually being toyed with to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to decide who you’re really rooting for. It’s a treat to watch these two old pros holding the floor for virtually the whole movie, and doing so in such a mesmerizing fashion.

Currently, Cash on Demand is only available on DVD as part of the Hammer- Icons of Suspense set from Sony in the US. The film has been transferred at 1.66:1 anamorphic, and it’s very clean, sharp and detailed. Since all the titles in the set come two to a disc it may be that the bit rate suffers a little, but that’s not an issue that I can say I noticed when I watched it. There are no extra features at all, although the highly attractive price and the fact that the whole set offers six extremely rare Hammer thrillers offsets any complaints on that score. This is a film that I first saw at least twenty years ago when it got a TV showing, and then not again until I picked up this set. It’s one of those unusual movies that sticks in the mind once viewed, and it was high up on my list of wants for a long time. The Icons set is one of my favourite releases from 2010 and the presence of Cash on Demand is a large part of the reason. It’s well worth tracking this one down.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Posted on June 1st, 2009 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Terence Fisher by Colin

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The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be the most familiar and famous Sherlock Holmes story of all. With its mixture of mystery and horror elements, and consequent crossover appeal, it’s easy to see why Doyle’s story has attracted so many filmmakers down through the years. My own favourite adaptation of the story remains the Rathbone and Bruce effort from 1939, but Hammer’s 1959 production does come very close to being its equal. There are a number of liberties taken transferring this classic story from the page to film, but I think I’ve said before that this never especially bothered me since I often feel that, for all their classic status, there are aspects of Doyle’s original writings that can be a little tedious. Hammer certainly tweaked the material here and there but the essence of the story remains and, when all’s said and done, that’s as much as anyone should reasonably expect from a literary adaptation.

The story, for those unfamiliar with it, concerns the legend of a curse on the aristocratic Baskerville family, wherein the male heirs are doomed to meet a grisly fate visited upon them by the mythical hound from hell. When the penultimate holder of the title dies alone under mysterious circumstances on the bleak moors, the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), returns to his ancestral home. Fearing for the safety of the new occupant of Baskerville Hall, a local physician, Dr Mortimer (Francis De Wolff), calls on the world’s greatest consulting detective (Peter Cushing) for advice. Mortimer’s account of the origin of the curse is told in flashback and forms the prologue of the film, setting things off at a storming pace that rarely lets up. The only slackness that occurs, and it’s very slight at that, is when Holmes sends Watson (Andre Morell) off alone to play nursemaid to Sir Henry. At this point Holmes is absent from the screen and the film suffers a little for it. However, this is a feature of the source material that can’t be avoided - anyway it offers the opportunity to see Watson acting on his own initiative for a change, and that alone means that it doesn’t deserve to be criticised too harshly. The scenes on the moors at night have an eerie, supernatural quality (lashings of mist and a soft green glow emanating from ruined buildings) that were the stock in trade of Hammer films and house director Terence Fisher. When Holmes eventually returns to the screen the film immediately gets a new lease of life, with Cushing lending a sense of urgency and energy. The final denouement takes place among the same spooky ruins that provided the backdrop for the opening, and this is the point where the movie disappoints a little. Until then the hound itself had never been as much as glimpsed, the characters only referring to it in hushed and fearful tones and it’s unearthly howls being heard echoing across the moors. Given the anticipation that such a build-up encourages, it’s hardly surprising that the beast struggles to live up to it in the flesh.

A two pipe problem - Watson (Andre Morell) & Holmes (Peter Cushing) mulling over a shaggy dog story.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is credited as being the first Holmes film in colour, and Hammer certainly did it proud. The opening is a riot of rich, vivid hues that look as pretty as anything the studio ever produced. James Bernard’s typically powerful score adds to the melodramatic atmosphere and Fisher’s direction is suspenseful and pacy (something which he’s occasionally been accused of neglecting in favour of atmosphere). Cushing and Morell were inspired casting, with the former providing one of the finest portrayals of the great detective on screen. He comes as close as anyone ever has to capturing the essence of the character, combining athleticism with erudition, waspish arrogance, and a sly humour. Morell moves Watson away from the bumbling foolishness of Nigel Bruce to offer a more serious sounding board for the wits of Holmes. Lee gives his usual professional performance as the last of the Baskervilles who falls for the sexy and feral Marla Landi, although he does succumb to a bout of the Elmer Fudds at one point (Come on now. Why did you wun away?). The support cast is as good as one would expect from a Hammer picture, with Miles Malleson doing a nice comic turn as a spider-loving clergyman while John Le Mesurier, Ewen Solon and Francis De Wolff lurk menacingly.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of MGM’s catalogue DVDs, and that means it’s just about adequate. The studio rarely seemed to consider it necessary to give their 1.66:1 titles an anamorphic transfer, and this release follows that pattern. There are also a variety of damage marks but none of them are seriously distracting. The R2 carries no extras save the theatrical trailer. Generally, this is an excellent Holmes film and, since it’s also one of Hammer’s best, it’s a pity the studio never followed it up and turned it into one of their series. Cushing and Morell had the makings of a fine team and it’s tempting to wonder what they could have done with the characters had they been given an extended run, but I understand the film just didn’t turn a big enough profit for Hammer to keep it going. However, they did leave us with a strong movie that holds up well to repeated viewings.