Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cash on Demand (Lawrence 1961)

While audience discussions of film might seem to indicate otherwise, rarely ever is it the overall plot which makes or breaks a given work. After all, take a look at perhaps the most popular genre in film at the moment, that of the superhero. Breakdown these films to their bare basics, and you will find a similar overall structure and story which repeats time and again, be it Superman, Batman or Spider-man. This is the same of all genres.

No, what most often makes a work is not the plot, but the details, which shape a work and give it the texture that makes it memorable. It is in the details where the subtext is to be found; it is in the details where the subtleties of character and drama are to be made or lost.

Take the film we are examining today, Cash on Demand. This 1961 suspense thriller from director Quentin Lawrence sounds like a typical heist film, with an innocent bank manager (Peter Cushing) blackmailed by a cunning crook (Andre Morell) into robbing the bank during operating hours. However, instead of being a standard bank heist film, Cash on Demand is a crime thriller update of Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, exploring class relations in post war Britain, with Andre Morell’s criminal character acting as a twisted, but likeable, amalgamation of the three ghosts of Christmas. This is achieved by smart writing, acting and directing which places emphasis on character and cinematic craft over cheap thrillers and violence, elevating the finished work into something more than a simple genre retread.

Played out real time, the first fifteen minutes or so have little to do with the robbery, but rather focus on the relationship between the bank’s chief executive Fordyce (Cushing) and his staff at a small town bank. A former soldier, Fordyce brings a military style of discipline to his branch and its operations, frequently noting that their job is to service the people of the community in an efficient and morally upright manner. However, Fordyce is totally detached from the very people he serves and, by extension, the people he works with. His service to the community is based in a very vapid ideal, believing in the structures of community, society, and most importantly, authority, without any actual understanding as to what those structures are designed to serve. This lack of understanding seems rooted in a sense of class distinction and generational difference, revealed by his contempt for the younger members of his staff and his obsession with his establishment remaining “dignified.” As played by Cushing, Fordyce is a man who conducts himself as if he were a lord, pronouncing judgments on his staff and believing in fear and respect as the most effective methods of conducting his trade.

It is these complex social and societal dynamics surrounding Fordyce’s authority and personality which explode with the arrival of Hepburn (Morell), and which become the real basis of the drama in the film. Hepburn is not a threat so much because he desires the bank’s money, but because he systematically disrupts, subverts and destroys the very symbols and structures which empower Fordyce, emasculating him and revealing his moral and ethical failings. It is here that the similarities with A Christmas Carol become increasingly apparent, as Hepburn becomes, in a perverse manner, a moral guide for Fordyce. This is all the more peculiar in that the audience is invited to not only like Hepburn, but actively root for him, despite the fact that Hepburn is threatening the lives of Fordyce family in order to gain the bank's funds.

No scene perhaps captures the central drama of the film more than a moment where Fordyce tries to stand up to Hepburn, making a declaration about how he will kill Hepburn if anything happens to his family. In what is a case of perfect acting, writing and directing, what would normally be a moment of heroic rebirth for Fordyce instead becomes a moment of great pity, as we are witness to how empty Fordyce’s threat is: it is pure posturing, with no real authority to be a credible threat. It is a magnificent scene for both Cushing and Morell, as Cushing, normally the most powerful of actors, allows himself to be shown at his most vulnerable, while Morell actually manages to subtly suggest a sense of pity on the part of Hepburn for Fordyce. It is a wonderfully layered scene, demonstrating a level of craft and intelligence missing from most modern thrillers, where the characters are often vapid stock types.

Director Lawrence in fact deserves a great deal of credit here. Working from a script from David T. Chantler and Lewis Greifer, based on a television script from Jaques Gillies, Lawarence careful utilizes the cinematic space, transforming the three room set into a rigidly defined areas designed to segregate and confine, mirroring the class and interpersonal dynamics between Fordyce and his staff. Moreover, the camerawork designed by Lawrence and cinematographer Arthur Grant is careful and controlled, at first distancing the viewer from Fordyce as we observe him, then gradually drawing the viewer into his point of view as his world falls apart.

Where the film fumbles slightly is with its conclusion, which creeps far too close towards sentimentality for a story which begs for a cynical and ambiguous conclusion. While it is a bit much to say the filmmakers cop out at this point, given that the ending was likely crafted to appease censors, it is hard not to feel slightly cheated as the film comes to a close. It isn’t a horrible ending by any stretch, but it is not nearly as satisfying as it could have been.

Regardless, Cash on Demand is well worth a rental, if not an outright purchase. Tense and well written, Cash on Demand is an example of how a stale genre can be transformed into something more by avoiding cheap, gimmicky twists and embracing character and an attention to detail that is often forgotten about in such films.

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