Saturday, December 21, 2019


One could be forgiven for not suspecting that Hammer Films, known for their comparatively lurid and bloody, sometimes pointedly lusty, and otherwise vividly imagined (and reimagined) catalogue of horror classics, would be the first place to look if one were in the market for a low-key yet spirited take on a holiday classic to turn to once the perennial screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Die Hard and countless other popular titles have begun to wear out their welcome. Yet the studio delivered just that in Cash on Demand (1962), a dandy and delicious suspense thriller directed by Quentin Lawrence, from a script by David T. Chantler and Lewis Griefer, itself based on a play by Jacques Gillies, which echoes of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the book and the countless movie and TV iterations which came before, to fresh and potent purpose.

Lawrence, a British TV veteran whose few feature film credits included The Man Who Finally Died (1963; itself based on a British TV series for which Lawrence shot several episodes), a Hammer follow-up to the infamous WWII potboiler Camp on Blood Island entitled The Secret of Blood Island (1965), and, perhaps most memorably for those of us well-versed in the Hammer output (though it was not itself a Hammer film), 1958’s The Crawling Eye, directs Cash on Demand with crisp efficiency and seductive simplicity that draws the viewer into its wintry setting with ease and assurance. But it is the players who populate this intense chamber piece—it takes place entirely within a small community bank located an hour or so outside London—who create the film’s most lasting impression.

One of the best things about Cash on Demand is the relative subtlety with which it references the Dickens classic—it’s possible to not even notice the resemblance until you’re snared in the movie’s novel web. But even though it’s not ultimately a full-fledged refashioning of Dickens’ familiar tale, this film most certainly has its own Ebenezer Scrooge, its own Bob Cratchit, and even a personification of a specter with less than honorable intentions who nonetheless nudges the Scrooge figure toward a self-realization that is entirely in line with the original story’s emotional denouement.  

The movie opens on a snowbound scene just outside the bank, where a man in a Santa suit is collecting for a local hospital charity, with the familiar carol “The First Noel” lilting on the soundtrack. But as the camera moves in on the metal placard just outside the bank’s door which identifies it as the City and Colonial Bank of Haversham, a musical strain is introduced that sounds at first as if it might be an orchestral ornament to the carol but which quickly evolves into a minor-key evocation of uncertain dread as the camera goes inside and moves through the empty spaces soon to be filled with employees and the occasional customer. 

Soon those employees begin to populate their workstations, led by Mr. Pearson, the head clerk who stands in for Cratchit. Pearson is essayed with palpable empathy by veteran character actor Richard Vernon (Goldfinger, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Pink Panther Strikes Again). The head clerk’s vaguely worn countenance bespeaks the weariness of a man stuck in a professional position which offers little reward other than vague security, yet also of a kindness that has probably carried him further with his own subordinates than it does with his immediate superior. 

That immediate superior is, of course, Cash on Demand’s Scrooge figure, the bank’s detail-obsessed, meticulously efficient manager Harry Fordyce, played with imperious reserve by one of Hammer’s greatest stars, Peter Cushing. When Fordyce enters the bank the already wintry atmosphere chills a few degrees further, each employee registering the degree of their boss’s daily, surely countless demands on their performance, and none more so than Pearson, whose professional competence and morality Fordyce calls into question almost immediately over a discovered imbalance in the daily books, the result of a charitable loan to a customer proffered by another clerk, which Pearson signed off on and which Fordyce inflates into a career-threatening charge of embezzlement.

Cushing, at least initially, offers no quarter against the impenetrable air of superiority Fordyce is able to indulge within his little realm. But unlike Scrooge, Fordyce appears to have no large wealth to claim as his own, which might make lording his power over his employees an easier path to take. Fordyce is, it’s fairly clear, a small man in his own right, without friends or connections apart from his immediate family, and embodying his pettiness is a task perfectly suited to Cushing’s wheelhouse. But as Fordyce is forced to confront the limits of his own worldview, and to come to understand how he has so frequently come up short in the humanity department, the shades of desperation, of isolation, of helplessness that are encased beneath Fordyce’s icy exterior begin to rise to the fore, and it’s here that Cushing, an actor able to imbue even his most extreme and ideologically entrenched characters with welcome shadings of understanding and clarity, begins to breathes real life into Fordyce and craft what I, as an unrepentant Cushing devotee, consider to be one of his two or three best, most compelling performances. (For another one of those, please see, if you haven’t already, his fanatical Gustav Weil in Hammer’s magnificent Twins of Evil, in which he gifts the religious zealot given charge over voluptuous twins who come under the influence of a vampire lord with a similar and unexpected sympathy.)

But what of Dickens’s ghosts? Fordyce himself first appears as an eerie reflection in that City and Colonial placard, an apparition which eventually takes human form and begins tending to an unoffending smudge on the placard’s shiny surface with a handkerchief. But in Cash on Demand, the real analog to those chain-rattling specters Dickens used to compel his protagonist into self-awareness takes corporeal shape as Colonel Gore-Hepburn, a cordial, if officious and perhaps overly self-assured gentleman who initially presents himself to the bank staff as an insurance inspector in order to get an audience with their boss and eventually reveals a more sinister purpose once ensconced within the confines of Fordyce’s office. 

Gore-Hepburn is played by the terrific and always-welcome André Morell, veteran of scores of Hammer productions as well as mainstream classics like Ben-Hur and The Bridge on the River Kwai, whose most indelible impression upon genre aficionados may have come as the persistently enquiring Professor Bernard Quatermass, who literally uncovers evidence of extraterrestrial life in a London Underground excavation in the original British TV production of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (1958). As the ex-military man, Morell deals in unctuous insinuation as if casually breathing the icy Haversham air, and he relishes his power over Fordyce from his first words, when Fordyce still believes him to be who he represents himself to be. But when Gore-Hepburn pulls back the curtain and reveals his actual identity and agenda, the charm Morell has exuded, and which he will be required to occasionally tap into again through a more threatening veil, disappears in favor of a decidedly less welcoming persona. Gore-Hepburn is actually a career criminal who has been casing the bank for over a year and has begun executing a well-thought-out plan to relieve the City and Colonial of its holiday reserve of over 90,000 pounds, a plan which includes holding Fordyce’s wife and son hostage under threat of torture and execution if the bank manager does not acquiesce to his every demand. It’s a great role for Morell, who clearly is having the time of his life playing the greater evil against Cushing’s misguided man of appearances and procedures, and together they deliver one of the most formidable one-two acting punches in the history of Hammer Studios.

Through the procession of events in which Fordyce is forced to squirm and betray his own principled stature as a banker of apparently peerless standards at Gore-Hepburn’s relentless insistence, the dramatic twists and turns which propel Cash on Demand never seem only like overwrought dramatic contrivances, and much credit for that has to go to these wonderful actors. The push-pull between Gore-Hepburn’s dominion of the situation and Fordyce‘s increasing desperation play with theatrical artifice, to be sure, but then so do Dickens’s. However, within the framework in which those conventions and artifices have been refashioned, the Cash on Demand company artfully deliver on their conceit with palpable relish, and with awareness of just how to deliver Fordyce to his particular personal and professional epiphanies (which, for Fordyce, are most certainly and inevitably intertwined) in a satisfying minor key befitting the resolution of an otherwise nerve-racking cat-and-mouse scenario which must echo, but never blatantly ape, the Dickensian formula in order to arrival at its own particular destination.

The resolution that Cash on Demand does come to I daresay will satisfy connoisseurs of crime and suspense as well as those in search of the restorative holiday balm that Dickens’s tale has delivered for generations, yet without the need to insist upon itself within the trappings of a traditional holiday classic. Maybe that’s one of the main reasons why it has become exactly that for me.  


Saturday, December 14, 2019


Scottish director Bill Forsyth has a strange way, one for which audiences should be eternally grateful, of delivering a symphony of melancholy notes which register in his movies with a sort of blithe exhilaration instead of the customary patina of hopelessness they perhaps might otherwise be subject to in the hands of another filmmaker. One senses the discomfort, the confusion, the weariness some of Forsyth’s characters experience without feeling overwhelmed by them, and he infuses his best films with such lyrical, unexpected, transformative beauty that it’d be almost impossible to leave them with anything other than an entirely bearable lightness of being; suffocating ennui is not on this filmmaker’s palette. 

Pauline Kael said of Forsyth’s much-beloved Local Hero (1983) that the picture was “like one of those lovely Elizabethan songs that are full of tra-la-la-la-la-las,” a quality that most appreciate about the film but that some use as a way of ticking down the picture’s overall worth into a somewhat more trivial margin. (Kael herself seemed to slightly discount the picture, after spending her review accounting for its offbeat charm and perspective, by claiming that it wasn’t “any major achievement… but it’s true to itself.”) And beneath those tra-la-las, beneath the fog of contentment that the protagonist of the film, the local hero, experiences upon arriving in the strangely magical Scottish coastal village and subjecting himself to its casually odd cadences, one senses Forsyth’s melancholy, the tinge of regret that the whole world can’t be as special as this place, which only fully emerges over the film’s final shot.


Kael also said of the Scottish director in that review that “Forsyth seems to go where impulse and instinct guide him; he's an entertainer-filmmaker who gives free play to his own sense of the ridiculous and his own sense of beauty.” This may be even more true of Forsyth’s follow-up to Local Hero, 1984’s Comfort and Joy, than it is of its more-celebrated predecessor. Comfort and Joy tracks a complacent Glaswegian radio personality, Alan “Dicky” Bird, played by Scottish character actor and national treasure Bill Paterson (The Singing Detective, Traffik, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Witches), who is quite suddenly unmoored from his complacent life when his kleptomaniac girlfriend decides to leave him in the midst of decorating their apartment for Christmas.

Disoriented, saddened, longing for the pleasures of his lost love, yet constantly casting an eye toward possible rebound romances, he catches the eye of a lovely lass in an ice-cream truck one day while caught in heavy city traffic and decides to follow the van, buy a sweet treat and perhaps strike up a conversation with the entrancing young woman.  Up to this point the viewer, especially one unfamiliar with Forsyth’s other films, might have a sense of what’s coming next. But of course, as Kael observed, this director is rarely beholden to anything beyond his own curiosity and impulses, and in pursuit of a fresh perspective on midlife crisis Forsyth lands Dicky Bird, who being the host of a popular light-information morning radio program is beginning to rankle at the triviality of his own contributions to the societal good, in the middle of a violent (but persistently silly) confrontation between two rival ice-cream companies. 

Forsyth took inspiration from an actual, and far more seriously violent and criminal conflict that had been in Glasgow headlines for years, but though allusions are made as to the underworld influences present amongst the soft-serve butting heads in Comfort and Joy, the scuffles depicted in the film are more easily remedied by recipes, or a wry, quizzical comment, than a hail of bullets or crowbars applied to kneecaps. In one big fight scene, some of the assailants wield large wooden mallets that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wile E. Coyote escapade. And there’s that the incessant, inescapable jingle emanating from the Mr. Bunny ice cream van. It’s a musical joke, on Alan and on the audience, of course, that approaches earworm levels of pleasing madness and tempers the real-world consequences of vendor-on-vendor violence with the assaultive capabilities of a lighter-than-air melody. But that joke is topped when Alan finally makes his way into the Mr. Bunny stronghold and we see (though he barely notes it) the hilarious origins of its recording, which are themselves incessant and sublimely ridiculous— in the midst of a chaotic warehouse filled with damaged ice cream vans and the autobody specialists repairing them, a man stands hunched over a xlyophone, repeatedly picking out the jingle’s melody, while another man stands with a microphone recording the sounds, interjecting a never-less-than-jolly “Hello, Folks!” over and over again at exactly the right interval. There you have the perfect Bill Forsyth trajectory—where you think you’re going is never quite where you arrive. 

The film is shot by Chris Menges, who also conjured the visual poetry of Local Hero. And here Menges delivers what might be the most quietly, unexpectedly lovely visual portrait of a city that I’ve ever seen in a movie— his Glasgow is dazzling in its softness, in its ephemeral curiosity; in the compression of buzzing cars and hilly roads that are flattened against one another and yet somehow expanded free of traditional physical constraints; in the glow of distant lights illuminating structures and interiors in ways that emphasize an intangible mystery about what might be going on inside, as if they were Christmas ornaments in a diorama of a city which displays all indication of existing in the real world yet seems almost supernaturally beautiful; in the gray gloaming that seems to have settled over that cityscape and its old and ascendant buildings, not like gloom but instead a blessing. This brilliant cinematographer-magician’s dexterity and sensitivity with light imbues Dicky Bird’s wanderings through man-made constructs with mournful beauty; he distinguishes Glasgow in the same way he did the Scottish coast, not with picture-postcard platitudes, but with gorgeously integrated notes of solemnity and lightness that seem to leap directly from the discombobulated disc jockey’s modesty-scaled crisis of identity and purpose.

And in the modulation of their particular contributions, both Forsyth and Menges crystallize the humanity that descends on Comfort and Joy like a light snowfall, or the expressive, oddly cheering gray fog in which the city seems perpetually enveloped here. As writer-director Forsyth characteristically zeroes in and, abetted by Menges’s poetic expressiveness, encapsulates the absurdity of conducting dire business over diary-based sweets, he manages to never forget that absurdity has a human scale. When Alan scoffs at grown men fighting over something as inconsequential as ice cream, the almost offhand way the observation is redirected to him (“And what business are you in that’s so important?”) has an unexpected sting. Alan’s rediscovery of himself as someone other than Dicky Bird, besotted partner to a woman who finds him disposable, and his emergence from his cloud of depression over the dissonance between his sense of purpose and the simple human need set in relief by the lyrically decorative trappings of the holiday season, is compelled by his reluctant involvement as mediator between the two rival confectioners. But it’s in integral element to the film’s decidedly odd tone, its odd humor, its raison d’etre, that even though Alan may be moving toward an actual state of happiness, the melancholy he feels, and that we viewers sense throughout, is part of his nature-- yes, perhaps as a Scotsman, but also simply as a man-- a realization with which he eventually comes to terms. 

Happily, in the film’s final shot, as Alan settles into his radio station studio, with all of Glasgow floating just outside the window, to take the Christmas morning shift and accompany his listeners in his familiar way, one truly understands how that alchemic mix of melancholy and lightness is in the spiritual and visual DNA of the film too. Which makes Comfort and Joy, for me, an almost perfect Christmas holiday movie. 

Comfort and Joy looks to be a bit difficult to find in the usual streaming places, though Netflix or Amazon could probably set you up with a DVD for rent. However, I found it last night in a surprisingly robust 720p transfer on, of all places, YouTube. Click this link and you can see it for yourself for the holidays.