Hammer and Scrooge

I had fond memories of seeing CASH ON DEMAND as a teenager and thinking it a forgotten treasure. Extremely glad to report that it holds up beautifully. It’s a 1961 thriller from Hammer without any of their customary grue effects (though there is a character called “Gore”) but with a Christmas setting. I don’t know why it hasn’t become a festive favourite — it shows a detestable character being mistreated for most of its running time — it is, in fact, a remake of A Christmas Carol, done as a heist movie.

It joins a substantial stock of Christmas heists — REINDEER GAMES, THE SILENT PARTNER, DIE HARD — our crook even anticipates Alan Rickman’s lovely line, when accused of being a common criminal — “I like to think of myself as an UNcommon criminal.” And it’s true — he walks into the bank with nothing but a commanding attitude and respectable manner, gets the manager alone, and threatens his wife with electrocution if he doesn’t assist in cleaning out the vault. A phone call from the panicked family cinches the deal. (On the Bill Rebane box set I had a part in, you can find a short film he made advising bankers on how to deal with this kind of problem.)

Based on an (evidently very good) play by Kiwi writer Jacques Gillies (born in Gore, New Zealand, he gives the town’s name to his smooth criminal), adapted without needless opening-out by American David T. Chantler and Brit Lewis Greifer, and very skillfully handled by director Quentin Lawrence, this is persistently gripping, first by making you hate the banker, who is mean to his staff for the first fifteen minutes, and then by making you empathise with him as he’s ruthlessly exploited and humiliated by the robber.

The very good news is that the banker is Peter Cushing and the thief is André Morell.

Cushing is a brilliant Scrooge — his usual clipped manner and precise movement is applied to a callous, somewhat OCD character (shades of Richard Sackler in Dopesick), a man you get all excited about loathing, and then have to feel for (unlike Richard Sackler in Dopesick, though the writers and actor Michael Stuhlbarg do imbue him with a certain creepy humanity). The film’s courageously quiet opening sequence gives us the pleasure of just watching Cushing do stuff. Entering his office at the start, he brushes a speck from his coat while hanging it, elaborately folds his scarf over a raised knee, and lovingly drapes it around his hanging coat so that the coat is now wearing the scarf as if it were a person.

This is all done so that for the rest of the film, when he starts coming apart under the strain, you can see it in the way his mannerisms become shaky and twitchy and sloppy. “We admired very much the precision of his movements within the frame,” said Martin Scorsese of his gang’s Times Square grindhouse Hammer experiences, and Cushing is indeed a very controlled, technical actor. But here he also becomes devastatingly moving — his technique is always allied to, and an expression of, genuine emotion.

Turning the screws on Scrooge is Morell, who really should have played more baddies on this evidence. His “Colonel Gore Hepburn” has steely glint and scary jollity, a sense almost of suppressed mania under a tweedy military bearing. Absolutely commanding. I always liked him, and this reminded me why: it may be his best work in movies. He was a smashing Dr. Watson to Cushing’s excitable Holmes in HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (I wish Hammer had made more with that pairing) but villainy liberates him.

And the movie is a proper Christmas film, beginning with a street Santa and dropping in references to the festive season throughout. It snows, too. You should absolutely check it out if you’re looking for unconventional holiday viewing — it even has the required uplift, after putting you through George Bayley type torture for 89 minutes.

CASH ON DEMAND stars Professor Lawrence Van Helsing; Professor Bernard Quatermass; Dr. Hugo Fassbender; and Alderman Poot.

7 Responses to “Hammer and Scrooge”

  1. this looks right up my cup of tea, thanks!

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:


  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Saw the original 1960 TV production that featured Morell but not Cushing. Richard Verson also repeated his role in the film version and both were directed by Quentin Lawrence. Richard Warner played Fordyce in the TV version.

  4. woolworthdiamond Says:

    I have a strange affection for Reindeer Games as the last theatrical Frankenheimer. I remember rewatching it after becoming more interested in his work, and it has such a beautiful eerie opening of all the dead Santas in the snow, showing, at least pictorially, the man still had it. Then the rest of the movie happens, which spoils the effect.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Morell has a bit in “The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella”, a sort of last-gasp Big Movie Musical from 1975. Directed by Bryan Forbes and scored by the Sherman brothers (they share screenplay credit with Forbes), it’s handsome and pleasant but a bit too formal. The usually comic and/or villainous parts are written and played almost straight, with only Michael Hordern allowed any real laughs — or character, for that matter — as the king. And while the movie never really does anything wrong, you wait in vain for the outsized turns or moments of crazy excess that redeem Big Movie Musicals. Richard Chamberlain jumps around a pristine ancestral tomb in an early comedy number, and there’s a brief but nifty bit with dancing mice, but even those are held to sensible levels. The romantic subplot plays out entirely off-camera — the lady doesn’t get a line, much less a song.

    Anyway, Morell turns up very late as a neighboring king whose daughter is scheduled to marry the prince.

    Forbes’s 2000 DVD commentary is interesting, pointing out that neither he nor many of his big-name stars had done musicals before. He also praises himself for doing a big movie on a $5,000,000 budget, calling attention to repurposed sets and scenes shot on his own estate (always referred to as his garden). And he complains about the British film industry squandering talent, specifically Gemma Craven (who returned to stage) and himself.

    Anyway, my favorite Cinderella remains the 1950s television version by Rodgers and Hammerstein, starring Julie Andrews. It’s a kinescope of a live presentation.

    Seasoned Greetings and an Aptly New Year.

  6. Reindeer Games has a neat, if contrived and unlikely plot premise, and I blame the crappier stuff on Miramax, who could be relied upon to screw up exposition and endings.

    Forbes’ bitterness is perhaps understandable, certainly human, but really, he had a great career and it’s a shame he didn’t see it that way. He deserves to be appreciated more for five or six really superb films.

    I’m going to watch the Cinderella kinescope!

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

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