CASH ON DEMAND. 1961. Peter Cushing, André Morell, Richard Vernon, Norman Bird, Kevin Stoney. Director: Quentin Lawrence.

   With Frankenstein and Dracula as their figureheads, it is easy to forget just how versatile Hammer Film Studios actually were, with comedies, war films and even a couple of Robin Hood movies amongst their filmography. One of their early specialities was the crime thriller, which they focused on particularly in the 1950s, with a trilogy of Dick Barton films, the last Saint and a Sexton Blake film (which I really, really must find somehow) and it is crime they returned to here.

   This low-budget black-and-white effort from director Quentin Lawrence stars a bespectacled Peter Cushing as the prim and pernickety bank manager Harry Fordyce, who is visited at work by an urbane, avuncular and apparently experienced insurance investigator named Colonel Gore-Hepburn (André Morell). It seems to be a routine check on the bank’s security, but things turn sour when the Colonel reveals himself to be a bank robber holding Fordyce’s family hostage at home. Fordyce is forced to become the Colonel’s accomplice and help remove £90,000 from the bank’s vault.

   Played out in real-time, on just three sets, the film snares the viewer’s interest and won’t let it go. The irony of a man as authoritative and stiffly regimental as Fordyce being plunged into a situation in which – for once – he has no control neatly demonstrates just how much power he has so instantly lost. In Gore-Hepburn, he is confronted with a ruthlessness just as rigid and impersonal as his own and it is almost as if this Colonel is an even darker version of himself. It is, effectively, the Ghost of Christmas Future who speaks to Fordyce suavely from across his desk and, like Scrooge, he becomes a changed man because of it.

   The film’s yuletide setting emphasises this moral – a time of goodwill, spiritual rebirth and the importance of family and friends – but, for me, it could have been clearer just why Fordyce goes on to be so grateful to his staff. They help in a minor way but I think they could have done more if the charity of others is what the filmmakers were pointing towards.

   However, even if this ending is a little inarticulate, the scenes before it more than compensate. The robbery scenes, in particular, are thrilling and there is reliable support from Richard Vernon and an underused, but always welcome, Norman Bird.

   Cushing and Morell had, of course, played Holmes and Watson in Hammer’s 1959 hit The Hound of the Baskervilles and much enjoyment comes from watching these two fine actors spar again in what is essentially a two-hander. Morell must have been at particular ease as he had played his character in the television version broadcast several months earlier (under the somewhat anaemic title The Gold Inside).

   It seems strange today, but many TV series of the time – such as several stories from The Francis Durbridge Serial – would see a film studio recast and reshoot a television production on a slightly bigger budget. Sometimes, this meant seeing the (condensed) material in colour or, at least, on a much bigger screen than the small one in the corner at home. Cushing himself would participate in such a feature when he took on the role of The Doctor (or, more properly, ‘Dr Who’) in the two Dalek films.

   Biographer David Miller wrote in Peter Cushing: A Life in Film that the actor seemed more theatrical and mannered here than usual. I would prefer to think of the performance as intense, which is no surprise as Cushing always gave his all to a role, without any indication of irony. Perhaps he considered it a novelty to play a less than heroic character. Elsewhere, in The British ‘B’ Film, writers Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane list Cash on Demand as one of the best examples of its kind, calling it, “both tensely compelling and humanely rewarding.”

   Happily, it’s on YouTube, so Cash on Demand won’t be demanding any cash from us, though it would certainly be worth it.

Rating: ***