Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 24, 2013
I don’t mean that literally, of course… it just feels that way sometimes, that there is a whole other side to Peter Cushing that no one ever talks about. Fans of the late and greatly missed actor are as one in their belief that the man was a consummate performer but it saddens me how few of that number will follow him into a non-horror film. Getting the jump on Pierre Fournier’s Peter Cushing Centennial Blog-a-thon by one day, I’ll be taking a look at just a scattering of the man’s non-genre roles, made before and during his tenure as one of the Kings of Hammer Horror.
Early in his career, Cushing tried his luck in America and fortune favored him with some small success. He made his feature film debut in James Whale’s THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939), where he was given a small role (and a dueling scene with Warren William) and used as star Louis Heyward’s double. Cast in a dual role, Heyward relied on Cushing to play his onscreen twin, with the studio compositing Heyward’s scenes into the same frame (and Cushing winding up on the cutting room floor). The opportunity not only allowed Cushing his first studio gig but allowed the fledgling film actor to make a study of his work via “dailies” and make adjustments. Cushing appeared in a handful of films in Hollywood, among them A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940) with Laurel and Hardy (in which he also doubled for Stan Laurel in one long shot) and VIGIL IN THE NIGHT (1940), opposite Carole Lombard. It was in VIGIL that Cushing got to play an actual character for the first time, and enjoy considerably higher billing. Twenty-seven years old at the time, he was cast as the boyfriend of clinic nurse Carole Lombard, whose sister (Ann Shirley), a nurse-in-training, causes the death of a young boy. Taking the fall for her sister, Lombard exiles herself to a tumbledown city hospital, where she falls under the purview of doctor Brian Aherne and a budding romance blossoms. Meanwhile, kid sister Shirley marries Cushing but another scandal (in which she is an entirely innocent party) complicates the plot, pointing the film toward a poignant but tragic finish (punctuated, if only in the British release print, with news of England’s entry into World War II). Cushing has only three scenes but he gets the most out of them, playing his character’s lack of sophistication and vulnerability in a world largely governed by chance. This is streets away from the certainty of his later, career-defining characterization of vampire slayer Abraham Van Helsing and more in line with what is to my mind his best film performance. But more about that later.
In Joseph Losey’s TIME WITHOUT PITY (1957), Cushing plays another supporting character — the lawyer retained to defend alcoholic writer Michael Redgrave’s son (Alec McCowen) against the charge of murder. You know almost immediately that Cushing’s natty little solicitor is going to be useless in the cause and that Redgrave, dead man walking that he is, will have to save the day single handed. It’s a thankless role but Cushing gives it his all, nearly convincing you at first that his ethics and professionalism might just be what the doctor ordered… until things go against the protagonists and he has to give that impotent, disappointed look that movie lawyers so often get before their clients are forced to take charge. This was Cushing’s last straight role before CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) changed the game — and his game — forever. Though his character can hardly be called dynamic, Cushing particularizes the man brilliantly (as ever) as an expertly tailored suit of clothes (plus a bowler and Harold Lloyd spectacles) in search of a heartbeat.
Made a couple of years before TIME WITHOUT PITY, Edward Dmytryk’s THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955) is the first film adaptation of the Grahame Green novel about an American writer in London after World War II who enters into an affair with the unstable wife of a civil servant. Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr play the lovers and Cushing the cuckold in the cutaway coat — an inherently decent and scrupulous man who has no idea what to do with a wife. When I was a kid I’d see this film listed among Peter Cushing’s credits and groan — Ugh, a movie about kissing, where nobody makes anybody out of dead bodies or drives a stake of fire-hardened ashwood into anybody’s sternum. And boy was I wrong. I now believe END OF THE AFFAIR to be the jewel in Cushing’s cinematic crown. He is magnificent at playing this lovely, clueless, weak man. In a standard love triangle, the part would have been a throwaway and Deborah Kerr’s preference for Van Johnson a no-brainer. Thankfully, Greene’s script is more than just about sex or passion and Cushing is allowed to imbue his character with some gorgeous shadings, which make you want to hug him and bash his dense head against the wall all at once.
Cushing received second billing for the Rank Organization’s VIOLENT PLAYGROUND (1958), though this likely had everything to do with seniority. (Though credited just below star Stanley Baker in the s opening credits and on posters, he is fourth-billed in the closing titles, behind younger costars Anne Heyward and David McCallum.) Again, Cushing has only a couple of scenes but great rapport with Baker, as (respectively) a Roman Catholic priest and a Liverpool copper working in common cause to turn local youths away from crime. Not surprising for a Basil Dearden, there is a strong sense of social conscience running through VIOLENT PLAYGROUND, which culminates in a hostage scenario, as McCallum’s wayward youth (who has turned to arson and accidentally killed another boy while in flight from the authorities) barricades himself inside an elementary school, where he holds a classroom full of 8 and 10 year-olds captive shouting contumely at the Liverpool PD. Post-Sandy Hook, this setpiece packs a surprisingly potent punch and Dearden does not shy away entirely from realizing the grim possibilities. It’s a great role for Baker, forcing him to dial back the machismo and use his head (as well as his heart) and Cushing works with him in perfect counterpart, etching an uncommonly practical and (for films) useful cleric. Cushing’s last bit with Baker almost begs for a TV spin-off that sadly never came.
A fictionalized account of the fatal 1954 crash of a DeHavilland Comet passenger jet in the Mediterranean Ocean, CONE OF SILENCE (1960) was made in the wake of Cushing’s career definition via Hammer Studios. By this point he had already made CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1957), REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1959) and THE MUMMY (1959) with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) the next serving on his horror plate. Though he plays another supporting role, albeit with quite a few scenes to his credit, Cushing’s rising stock within the British film industry dictated billing above Bernard Lee (poised to assume the mantle of “M” in the James Bond series), around whom the film revolves. Released in the United States as TROUBLE IN THE SKY, the film attends a series of investigations into the character of one Captain Gort (Lee), a commercial pilot, following an accident that left his copilot dead. Permitted to resume flying (despite the reservations of various colleagues), Gort struggles to shake off the shroud of shame the the world wants to drape around his rounded shoulders. Michael Craig stars as a training pilot whose job of assessing Gort’s capabilities are compromised by his love for the man’s daughter (Elizabeth Seal, whose next feature film was VAMPIRE CIRCUS, a decade later) and elsewhere CONE OF SILENCE benefits from the crisp performances of a number of familiar British and Australian character actors: André Morrell (Watson to Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES), Jack Hedley (THE ANNIVERSARY), Charles Tingwell (DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Noel Willman (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), Marne Maitland (THE REPTILE), Gordon Jackson (UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS), and George Sanders (in a wry cameo as a smarmy legal counsel). It’s Cushing who has the most interesting character to play, though, as his motivations are the hardest to pin down. The power of CONE OF SILENCE is that it doesn’t scapegoat anyone, however great their culpability may be. The film builds to a tragic finish, with Cushing’s starchy martinet humbled by the very human error he sought to expose in another. Imagine a Dracula film in which Van Helsing comes to realize he is wrong.
Quentin Lawrence’s CASH ON DEMAND (1962) gets a little more love from Cushing fans because it is a Hammer film (albeit non-horror) and readily available on DVD here in the States. Nonetheless, it is sorely underestimated as a top-tier Cushing title and that inequity needs to be corrected post haste. Essentially a coy reworking of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the film presents PC as a niggling provincial bank manager who lords over his employees like a jailhouse screw, terrorizing them with niggling details (he is a compulsive smudge and dust checker) and holding over their bowed heads the threat of termination. Cushing’s need to be in control at all times is tested one December 23rd when gentleman bank robber André Morell slides into his back office in the guise of an insurance company inspector. Charming the wage slaves with a lot of squire-like bonhomie, Morell reveals another side entirely when alone with Cushing, informing him that his wife and son are being held hostage against the completion of a successful robbery. Morell is at the top of his game here, by turns avuncular and merciless (his reading of the line “Just some money” is absolutely brilliant — there should be a BAFTA category for Best Performance by a Pair of Lips), but the show is watching Cushing being taken down several pegs, systematically, from self-perceived demigod to decent human being. If the framing device seems a bit pat, let me tell you that the execution is flawless throughout. You’d scarcely remember after the final fade-out that CASH ON DEMAND is essentially a two-man show, with a single setting, so great is the tension and so cracking is the chemistry between Cushing and Morell that you never know, even thirty seconds before the end title crawl, how this thing is going to play out.
Peter Cushing left Hollywood before he could become a name in America, so great was his love for his homeland that he could not wait to return to it, despite having to cross Nazi-targeted shipping lanes in order to get there. He spent the next decade in theatre before returning to film in HAMLET (1948), opposite Laurence Olivier (and a young actor named Christopher Lee) but it was in British television that Cushing made his early fame. Hammer brought Cushing back to the big screen in a major way, albeit ghettoized in genre. One might feel sorry for Cushing for losing out on more choice dramatic roles… but look what happened to most of the big Hollywood stars he supported. By the 1970s, with Cushing still going strong as Hammer’s elder statesman, Louis Heyward, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, and even Van Johnson were doing cheap thrillers, programmers, and even horror movies. Sure, he would have been amazing in, say, the Alec Guiness role in BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1957) or as Kim Stanley’s weak-willed husband in SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964) or as Merlyn in CAMELOT (1967) but he did all right, didn’t he? Happy Birthday, Peter Cushing! We’ll still be watching your films 100 years from now.
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