Ideal crime B-picture. No femme fatale, but a tight one-location two-hander. Set a couple of days before Xmas in a rural English market town, while possessing sufficient twists to see it through, in the main it is a battle of wills between urbane thief Col Gore Hepburn (Andre Morell) and his victim, stuffed-shirt bank manager Harry Fordyce (Peter Cushing). Combines slick heist with An Inspector Calls mentality where the morally superior are taken down a peg.
Fordyce is the kind of martinet who makes his staff remove Xmas cards from display, nit-picks about the state of nibs (in the days when pens were dipped in ink) and threatens to sack chief clerk Pearson (Harry Vernon) over a minor error that he has worked up into potential embezzlement. So unpopular, he is not invited to the staff party.
Under the guise of carrying out a security inspection Hepburn sets up a robbery, tying Fordyce in moral knots, his unwilling collaboration ensured by threatening to stick electrodes to the bank manager’s wife’s head. Hepburn has done his research, aware of all aspects of security, but, more importantly, knows his man, how to exert pressure, how to keep Fordyce on edge. Hepburn reeks of self-assurance, Fordyce of insecurity, a friendless man who bullies his staff, living a life suffused with discipline and bereft of enjoyment.
Though there are a couple of red herrings, and an unexpected incident, what mostly endangers Hepburn’s bitingly clever plan is the unforeseen, that the cold-hearted bank manager will come apart under pressure.
Underlying the action is class conflict. But not the usual working- class vs upper class. Instead it is aspiring middle class vs assured well-educated upper class. Hepburn is the kind of well-dressed smoothie who could talk his way into any company and out of any situation. He puts everyone at their ease, knows how to enjoy himself, would make any party go with a swing, could flirt convincingly with your grandmother, and you would trust within an inch of your life. Fordyce, on the other hand, is one of life’s scrapers, everything by the book, creeping into management painfully slowly, and once acquiring a position of authority letting everyone know who is boss and terrified of losing his standing in society. It’s “class” of another kind too, that of the winning personality versus the eternal loser.
This plays against expectation. Normally, in a heist scenario, there’s one employee who’s trying to beat the baddies, some clever device or trick up their sleeve. That’s not the case here. Instead, we’re served up a character study, the supposedly upright pillar of the community revealed as a coward and moral bankrupt.
And the unexpected also comes in the casting. Both Peter Cushing and Andre Morell play against type. At this point they were best known as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), an upright team on the side of the angels. Cushing, while often tight-lipped, generally exhibited a morally superior screen persona. Here, that trademark persona rapidly vanishes under pressure.
Quentin Lawrence (The Secret of Blood Island, 1965) directs within a very tight timeframe.
The movie had unusual origins. It was expanded from a short-lived series called Theatre 70 on British ITV, the number relating to time, the program running for 70 minutes rather than the usual hour. And it had just as unusual a release. Perhaps for copyright reasons, it didn’t see the inside of a cinema in the UK until December 1963 when it went out as the support to musical Bye Bye Birdie (1963) on the Odeon circuit. But it had already been released by Columbia in the US in 1961 as the support to Twist Around the Clock (1961).