Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Two actors whose names are synonymous both with each other and with the horror genre – which they seemed to sustain almost by themselves from the late 1950’s to the mid 1970’s. But, as Christopher Lee was all too keen to emphasise, their actual film choices and the different characters they played throughout their careers show there was much more to them than monsters and mad scientists.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, fascinated by horror films, I became aware of Cushing and Lee through the late-night horror double-bills that were a regular part of BBC2’s output. I knew Cushing from Star Wars - the seismic impact of that film on my life guaranteed my interest in anything connected to it - and his obvious warmth in so many of the roles, and his flawless acting made him an immediately attractive figure. Always so precise. So intelligent. Lee was more of an enigma, often behind makeup and prosthetics, and usually the more sinister and distant of the two. But from the start, they were a brilliantly matched pair. And off screen, the two friends conducted themselves with dignity, professionalism, without scandal, and followed through with a great devotion to their families, to their craft and to each other. This too is a crucial part of the Cushing Lee Factor and for me no small treasure in appreciating their contribution to film. Of course, as actors keen to work, who were typecast if not in their roles at least within a genre whose output generally emphasised thrills and gore over quality, it’s not surprising that some of the films they made were not so good. But more than a few were fine films that hold up today as classics of the genre and so, as a suitable starting point, it is appropriate that their first joint credit was something of a cinematic landmark.
Laurence Olivier was an acting god and his first film as director, Henry V, was a magnificently successful adaptation of the play – innovative, witty, bold, and thoroughly accessible. Hamlet, his second film as director came four years later and was an equally ambitious piece. Shakespeare as a medieval film noir, part ghost story, part revenge tale – the great play speaks for itself and Olivier’s version is another triumph, winning Oscars for best picture (the first non-American film to do so) and best actor (amazingly Olivier’s only win for acting). However, while this is technically Cushing and Lee’s first film together, it only just counts, as Lee only has a bit part as a spear carrier. I think he’s on for a few seconds here and there from about 10 minutes in. But as the first of three accidental and incidental collaborations they had, the film is still worth mentioning not least for the more significant role Cushing has as Osric. He shares a lively scene with Olivier’s Hamlet as the preening, foppish fool sent to bring Hamlet the fencing challenge. Cushing is almost unrecognisable by his accent and mannerisms complete with a comedy pratfall. What I like best is that during the duel itself, Osric’s complicity with Laertes plot is revealed through a heartfelt, steely but defeated stare from Osric when they realise that Hamlet has bested them. Incidentally, Olivier would cast another pair of future horror regulars in his next film, 1955's Richard III. Michael Gough and (Hammer’s most used actor) Michael Ripper would play the murderers of Gielgud’s Duke of Clarence.
Moulin Rouge (1952)
John Huston’s film adaptation of the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec has Jose Ferrer on impressive form as the troubled genius painter who lives amongst the bohemian sub-culture of Paris despite his aristocratic pedigree. The film was unstoppable – and watching it now is a dull experience. Lee is only present as a voice (dubbing the part of Helmut e’s Nectanabus). Cushing however, plays Memmon with a broiling earnestness, further establishing his great range and the part how he was an actor of interest to many great producers and directors. rectors. ectors. ctors. . ors. rs. s. . aphy and the choreography. But as is so often true with biopics, the story holds a steady line from A to B and the overriding despondency of Lautrec prevents the film from truly coming alive. For the first time, both Cushing and Lee have lines in the same film albeit as single-scene characters (they do not share screen time). Lee is on first as the artist Georges Seurat who, with a group of others tries to penetrate Lautrec’s gloom. Cushing comes in later as Marcel de la Voisier, the ex-lover of Lautrec’s girlfriend Myriamme Hyam. There is a nice awkwardness conveyed between Voisier, Lautrec and Hyam. Cushing and Lee were warming up to their future landmark films but at this point, had yet to meet.
Alexander the Great (1956)
The third of Cushing and Lee’s incidental collaborations, is another technical inclusion. Robert Rossen’s Alexander is now considered something of a failure. Burton was too old to convince as the teenage conqueror– though his charisma is unstoppable – and watching it now is a dull experience. Lee is only present as a voice (dubbing the part of Helmut Dantine’s Nectanabus). Cushing however, plays Memmon with a broiling earnestness, further establishing his great range.
The seed of Cushing and Lee's connection was sown in these three 'big' films of varying quality, each interesting in their own way, each part of the wider tapestry that was introducing the two men to cinema. Between 1948 and 1956 both Cushing and Lee were establishing themselves, appearing in roles in many different films. Lee mostly in small supporting roles, Cushing in parts of substance that were helping him build a reputation as a fine character actor. And it was his work in The End of the Affair (1955) and TV films of The Browning Version and 1984 (for which he won the BAFTA TV award for best actor in 1956) which would ensure that the tractor beam of Hammer Films would soon draw him into their world, for the lead role in what would be the two actors first true collaboration, 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein.