sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2010-06-06 05:14 am

You're hardly in a position to know anything about my character

I have a new favorite B-movie. I was going to post about it yesterday, but then I saw Metropolis (1927) and all the space went out of my brain, and then [ profile] gaudior showed me the first three episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) and I was distracted by gender. Both of which I should talk about, but right now my head is full of Peter Cushing. There are worse things.

Made during one of Hammer's forays into straight-up suspense, i.e., no one plays Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, or Frankenstein, Cash on Demand (1961) is a tight, twisty little two-hander of a bank job/character study, clocking in at eighty minutes without a single wasted shot. It takes place very nearly in real time. It is as precise with its language as a good play. It is also, despite containing not a moment of sex, gore, or any action more violent than a man being hit across the face, one of the more idtastic films I've seen recently. And keep in mind that I just watched Metropolis and an anime full of swords and roses.

We begin on a winter's morning with a bell-ringing Father Christmas, the counters and offices of a bank not yet open for business, and a reflection wavering in the brass nameplate of the City and Colonial Bank, Haversham Branch. When it comes into focus, it turns out to belong to a thin-lipped man with cut-glass cheekbones and a bowler hat whose first act onscreen is the disapproving inspection and removal of an invisible smudge; his second is to enter the bank—handing off his snow-caked overshoes to one of the tellers—where his mere presence puts the kibosh on an enthusiastic discussion of the upcoming staff party. In his office, he tidies up his desk with mathematical accuracy, smiles briefly at a framed double photograph of his wife and son, and starts getting ready to call on the carpet the first employee of the day. Thus are we introduced to Harry Fordyce (Peter Cushing). He's managed this bank for the last fifteen years and made a little tin god's holiday of it. He is about to have the worst morning of his life, but he doesn't know it yet.

First the film is content to show off Fordyce in his natural habitat. He's a type familiar to anyone who has ever endured a bad office job—chilly, censorious, micromanaging, whose fastidious enforcement of efficiency and decorum would be funny if it didn't produce such a climate of fear in his staff. He dresses down his chief clerk over an inky pen as if it were a girlie magazine left lying open at the centerfold. A matter of ten pounds accidentally overdrawn and replaced the next day becomes a dark intimation of embezzlement and conspiracy. He won't even let one of the secretaries keep her Christmas cards on her desk: "Banking is one of the few dignified businesses left in the world, Miss Pringle. Do you mind terribly if we keep it that way?" He is without humor, without empathy, and Cushing's gaunt, patrician comportment only emphasizes the man's pettiness: to waste that ascetic hauteur bullying five clerks in a village bank is a damn near crying shame.

All that changes with the arrival of André Morell. A shrewd, hearty man with an aristocratic drawl that outranks Fordyce's clipped RP and an affable way of throwing the buttoned-down manager off his stride, he introduces himself as Colonel Gore-Hepburn, a head office man from the Home and Mercantile Bankers' Insurance making the rounds of a routine security check-up. In reality he is a bank robber and he has selected Fordyce to help him. The proposition is simple: if Gore-Hepburn is allowed to leave within the hour with ninety thousand pounds and no interference from the police, Fordyce's wife and child will not be subjected to deranging, potentially fatal electroshock. Should Fordyce at any stage of this process call for help, refuse to comply, or lose his head and give the game away . . . One terrified, cut-off phone call is nightmare fuel enough: "She would never recover her wits." White-faced, still believing on some level that this can't be happening to him, Fordyce agrees. But though there's nail-biting to spare as each stage of the "operation" raises the stakes for both Gore-Hepburn's wits and Fordyce's nerves, the next fifty minutes are far less Hitchcock than Dickens, with the dialogue taking on a curiously psychomachic quality as it becomes clear that what Fordyce is really resisting is not his part in the robbery—there are degrees by which he is alternately shocked and soothed into accepting his complicity, but it was a done deal from the moment he took the colonel's card—but the picture of himself with which he is faced as every one of his self-protective pretenses is stripped away under Gore-Hepburn's genial predator's play. He's not a fair-minded man. He's not a charitable one. He's not a well-respected one. He's not even a very professional branch manager, the way he humiliates his employees to bolster his own uncertain ego, and he's certainly not in control of this situation. "Just a shade more deference, Fordyce," Gore-Hepburn corrects him pleasantly, "a little more eagerness to please me . . . Otherwise I shall be obliged to arrange a small scream to refresh your memory." What the traditional protagonist in a tight corner discovers is the courage she never knew she had. What Fordyce discovers is that he's got none at all.

And this probably illustrates something about pathos according to Aristotle or mirror neurons, because it is this revelation of weakness that begins to earn Fordyce the audience's sympathy. Underneath his three-piece armor of autocracy and officious routine, he's as faulty, foolish, and vulnerable as the next person—and as desperately in need of compassion, a quality he has not been particularly notable in showing others. Watch the scene where he removes his glasses, slightly bemused at Gore-Hepburn's abrupt order: he mutters, "I can't see, you know," and in the half-defensive, half-apologetic words there is suddenly a glimpse of someone much younger and shyer, peering at the world around him with the same hesitancy; not quite knowing how, but knowing he's about to get hurt. The manner in which he puts his glasses back on again afterward is heart-piercing. In case it's not obvious, I cannot praise Peter Cushing enough in this role; it's widely considered his best performance on film and I have no difficulty believing it. André Morell is no slouch, either; he had played O'Brien to Cushing's Winston Smith in the 1954 Nineteen Eighty-Four and here offers a blend of menace, showmanship, and what might be either genuine humanism or merely self-amusement. There is something of the big cat about him, the mellifluous rumble of his voice, the smiling detachment with which he studies Fordyce and the ambiguity of his claim, "I can't help interesting myself in people." The rest of the cast are not immaterial, especially Richard Vernon as Pearson, the long put-upon chief clerk who finds himself unexpectedly at the crux of the plot, but it's really Morell's show and Cushing's, Cushing's most of all. Ultimately he's playing a kind of double fantasy, Christmastime redemption by way of a karmic boot to the butt, but thanks to the smallest gestures like the opening of a pocketbook or the straightening of a tie, we never once doubt the reality of Harry Fordyce. Even if we'd rather not have worked for him before this December the 23rd.

It was really a very good film.

[identity profile] 2010-06-06 09:50 am (UTC)(link)
Reading this is as good as seeing a good film. You are such an excellent storyteller. With you and [ profile] teenybuffalo in my life, I shall never want for wonderful movies.

I'm off now to see if I can put this on my Netflix queue. (Damn, just wrote "cue" again. At least I didn't write "Q")

[identity profile] 2010-06-06 01:40 pm (UTC)(link)
Reading this is as good as seeing a good film.


And I hope you'll write up Utena and Metropolis!

larryhammer: a low-fidelity picture of a man, label: "some guy" (buh?)

[personal profile] larryhammer 2010-06-06 03:36 pm (UTC)(link)
*looks forward to taaffeish thoughts on Utena*
larryhammer: a low-fidelity picture of a man, label: "some guy" (buh?)

[personal profile] larryhammer 2010-06-06 09:29 pm (UTC)(link)
The show does interrogate what each of the student council means by "revolution," as it pokes harder at their (separate) motives. But it's got a few fish to fry on the front burners first, by throwing a few rocks at Utena.

Just watch out for the curry.


[identity profile] 2010-06-06 09:18 pm (UTC)(link)
As do I.

Also, go see Splice as soon as you are able.

[identity profile] 2010-06-07 02:32 pm (UTC)(link)
As for Utena, it's been a very long time since I have seen it as well, and I should probably go back and refresh my own memory.

As for Splice, it puts the mad back in mad scientist and one of the most engagingly and disastrously human monster movies I've seen.
ext_104661: (Default)

[identity profile] 2016-09-16 12:19 am (UTC)(link)
Saw this today. Loved it! _A Christmas Carol_, with a bank robber instead of ghosts!