Last night I watched The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) for the first time. Those of you who are Hammer enthusiasts might be surprised at that. But I am sure many of you agree, experiencing one performance on the part of the great Peter Cushing is enough to make one a fan. So even though I have been and enthusiastic fan of Cushing for many, many years I have only just in the last week begun to explore the Hammer Horror part of his career.
In addition to Curse, I have also seen Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), all within the last few days. The Hammer films have always been described to me as low budget but I have really found them to be enjoyable. Cushing’s performances in these films are every bit as formidable as any. In every interview I have seen in which Cushing is asked about these films, the actor has been adamant that he considered Hammer films to be a serious endeavor.
This attitude is evident in each of the Hammer films I have seen and I would suggest might even be the reason for the enduring success of the films. Such a performance can raise the tone of a film, thus counteracting the effect that low budgets can sometimes have on a genre such as horror which relies on special effects. In Curse Cushing plays one of the sociopathic characters that he was so very good at creating. The performance is one of his best.
Notwithstanding his considerable talent as an actor, I marvel at his ability to create these deeply evil characters, such as Dr. Frankenstein when the man himself was, by all reports, so loving and caring, not capable of such cruelty. And yet his performance in Curse left me uncomfortable. I have seen Cushing play villains before, first his performance as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977) when I was just five years old, but the particular performance in Curse was so good it really unsettled me. Which is exactly what you want from a performance in a horror film.
This discomfort I felt, which made the film far more effective than any special effects could ever do, renewed my sense of wonder, as a film director, at how Cushing could create these evil men. I often assign the Star Wars performance to actors when I need them to understand how to play evil but until just a few days ago, I still had not fully realized why Cushing was so good at this.
One aspect I ask my actors to pay special attention to is that Cushing never over plays evil. He creates quite a bit of emotion and then covers it with his trademark ‘gentle man of horror’ demeanor. This disarms the observer and leaves us more vulnerable to the performance. He used more of this shield in his Star Wars performance, likely because the character was military but in The Curse of Frankenstein, though he used a very similar technique, more emotion came through. Just as much as was necessary to create the enthusiastic madman he was playing.
At times this character openly enjoyed his own evilness. For instance in a scene where a maid confronts Frankenstein and threatens to call authorities on him. Cushing leans in with a wicked smile showing the mad doctor to become almost aroused by the challenge of someone attempting to stand up to his controlling tactics, and one can see disappointment on his face as she backs down. This is cat and mouse at it’s best. Still one can hardly watch this without disbelieving that someone can be so evil and still disarm. I can’t ask Cushing how he achieved this but I do believe I have gotten and answer to this question from the man himself.
Just a few days ago, I stumbled on an interview of Cushing that took place in the 80‘s. It is of poor quality having been recorded on home video equipment but in it Cushing is his usual, unusually open and trusting self and among other things shares with the viewer that his favorite actor was Humphrey Bogart. He said that no matter how evil a character he played, that ‘Bogart could do no wrong.’ Cushing’s explanation of why he reacted to Bogart this way finally gave me insight into his own ability to disturb and disarm at the very same time.
Cushing explained that a little bit of the actor shows through in every performance. So there it is. The evil we see in Dr. Frankenstein, and Grand Moff Takrin is created by the professional, the charm came from the man. As a director I am at the same time thrilled and disappointed at this discovery. Thrilled that I finally understand a little bit of where the greatness comes from, and disappointed that only part of what goes into it can be taught.
There are many great actors capable of learning to, at least approach, if not reach the greatness of Cushing’s ability to create powerful characters, but I fear that it might be impossible to find someone who carries the same delightful characteristics that Peter Cushing possessed naturally, the very characteristics that complete the equation.
As an example of this multidimensional aspect of Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein, I refer the viewer to a scene in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) where Frankenstein is interrupted whilst preparing food for his monster. In the quantitatively small portion of the scene before his attention is taken by a knock at the door, Frankenstein carefully tastes the monster’s food and not satisfied, adds salt to the food. Here we have a man that is pure evil and yet he cares to properly season the food of the creature he has been toying with and using for the duration of the film.
That is pure Peter. I am convinced of it. Cushing was known for involving himself in many aspects of the films he participated in and without clear evidence to the contrary, I have to believe that Frankenstein’s loving food preparation for the monster he abused was the actor’s idea. Once I understood this, I began to see more clearly just where the gentleness of the man leaked into his formidable characters. There is a further example in Curse where he attempts to protect the monster from a gun shot and the now iconic dialogue in Star Wars where Tarkin emphasizes how hard it was to order the death of Princess Lea.
Yes, I could feel sorry for myself that I am too young to have ever worked with Peter Cushing but I have to count myself lucky that I at least came after him and that he was a film actor thus leaving countless hours of recorded greatness. Luckier still that I am able to share my thoughts with others who love his work.
REVIEW: Anne LaBarbera
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks