While Hammer Studios is probably best known for its horror and fantasy offerings, it also produced straightforward melodramas which are equally, if differently, interesting. Cash on Demand, starring Peter Cushing and André Morell, for example, is a riveting story about a bank heist that, if nothing else, demonstrates how much the Hammer pool of actors could make of their material.
Based on a play, the action in Cash takes place almost entirely in a cramped, provincial English bank. With such limited settings, and the largely high-key black-and-white cinematography, there is little opportunity for the Hammer technicians to demonstrate their usual visual flair. The execution is first rate, but it takes a back seat to the performances.
It is practically a two-man show. Cushing stars as Harry Fordyce, a prim branch manager who insists on efficiency and playing by the book at the expense of any human consideration. Morell is his antagonist, Colonel Gore Hepburn, who blackmails Fordyce into helping him rob the bank. Morell’s svelte voice and immaculate diction ooze charm and violent threat all at once, although there is nothing particularly original in what he does with his part. Initially more attractive than Fordyce, his appeal results from little more than a simple reversal of expectation. It’s not as if it is terribly difficult to be more appealing than Fordyce.
Which is why Cushing deserves the plaudits. At first it seems as if Fordyce will be nothing more than the cliché image of a prissy, tightly-wrapped automaton. The writing certainly doesn’t require anything more. As the story progresses, however, and as Fordyce is entangled ever more thoroughly in Hepburn’s plans, Cushing’s performance becomes more complex. He delivers on the story’s conventional expectation that Fordyce learn from his ordeal to become more “human,” but the way he transforms the character is fascinating.
There is a moment late in the action, for example, when Fordyce is supposed to stand by the window of his office and wipe his brow with a handkerchief in what he thinks is a signal to a confederate of Hepburn’s. It’s a moment of supreme stress, in which Fordyce is torn in about three different directions simultaneously. Standing in front of police to whom he wants to tell the truth, but cannot, Cushing turns that single, simple moment into a multi-faceted display of conflicting emotions—anxiety, guilt, the desire to confess and more than a little recognition of just how absurd he looks as he performs the gesture.
Cushing sculpts Fordyce into a flawed, rounded human being out of the story’s melodramatic clay. He never condescends to the material. He always gives the audience the best he can by treating the conventions seriously, and giving them whatever truth he can muster. In the end, humanity is demonstrated not by Fordyce’s new, contrived, sensitivity, but by our being able to witness the blossoming of Cushing’s creative imagination.