Peter Cushing is best known for the huge number of horror films he made for Hammer Studios between 1957 and 1974. Yet unlike some of his spooky cousins working across the pond, such as Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, he managed to sidestep the burden of typecasting. He portrayed heroes and villains with equal skill. He could play tender or vicious, weaselly or righteous, meek or bold. Few parts were beyond the scope of his formidable talent.
One element that linked all of his performances was the dignity that he brought to them. However schlocky the film may have been – and Cushing regularly acted in titles like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Creeping Flesh (1973) – he always approached these roles with the same seriousness of an actor tackling Shakespeare. He didn’t gurn and mug. He didn’t phone it in. He was unfailingly invested in every one of his characters, which is one reason why he remains such a beloved figure almost 30 years after his death.
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Although it’s hard to condense his long and prolific career into just 10 movies, the films in this list demonstrate the breadth of Cushing’s remarkable range.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Made for TV, this BBC production was the first screen adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel. Cushing plays the ill-fated leading man, Winston Smith, a dystopian drudge who defies the authoritarian regime that dictates his every waking moment, to pursue a love affair with fellow renegade Julia (Yvonne Mitchell).
Winston never has a chance in Nineteen Eighty-Four. His short-lived attempt at revolution is underscored by a desperate fatalism; he knows he will lose, it’s just a matter of when. Cushing paints each part of his doomed hero’s journey – his chafing at the system, his passion for Julia, his ultimate resignation – with an affectingly vulnerable humanity.
The End of the Affair (1955)
Director: Edward Dmytryk
In Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1951 novel, Cushing is Henry Miles, a civil servant in a passionless marriage with Sarah (Deborah Kerr). She embarks on an affair with American writer Maurice (Van Johnson), which culminates in tragedy.
Although the film is primarily concerned with Maurice and Sarah’s affair and her subsequent attack of religiously motivated guilt, Cushing’s performance as the good-hearted but staid spurned husband leaves a profound impact. His Henry is a man both uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the deep well of emotions his wife is experiencing. Henry’s fear in the last act, when he realises all that he is about to lose, is heartrendingly fragile.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Director: Terence Fisher
The Curse of Frankenstein was the first film Cushing would make for Hammer Studios, the first occasion he would share the screen with Christopher Lee (the two had both appeared separately in 1948’s Hamlet and 1952’s Moulin Rouge, but didn’t meet until the shooting of this movie), and the first of six times he would star as the fiendish Baron Frankenstein, maniacal creator of the unwittingly destructive monster (Lee).
Cushing’s Frankenstein was one of his most memorable characters, and perhaps the best example of his unmatched capacity for playing chilly, cerebral villains. He cares about nothing but his experiments and dispatches anyone who gets in his way with pitiless ease.
Violent Playground (1958)
Director: Basil Dearden
Violent Playground tells the story of a policeman, Truman (Stanley Baker), charged with becoming a juvenile liaison officer, and his frequent run-ins with gang leader and pyromaniac Johnnie (David McCallum). Cushing is the local priest who also tries to keep Johnnie in check.
While his supporting role only affords him a handful of scenes, Cushing’s thoughtful, patient priest makes a valuable counterpart to Baker’s more aggressive police officer. In scant screen time, he’s quickly convincing as a caring man who’s spent years trying to get through to the troubled boy and is determined to keep trying, however long it takes.
Director: Terence Fisher
The year after chilling audiences with his heartlessness in The Curse of Frankenstein, Cushing switched sides of the moral divide for the first entry in his other famous Hammer series. In the Dracula movies, he was Van Helsing – the brave slayer charged with vanquishing Lee’s vampiric evil.
Cushing’s villains tended to be icily cerebral, his heroes kind but meek; Dracula gave him the rare chance to play dashing. Throughout, he moves with a suave confidence, particularly during his final battle with Lee, during which he performed many of the stunts (including the climactic leap to pull down a curtain and expose a flailing Dracula to the sunlight) himself.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Director: Terence Fisher
Following his performances as Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing, Hammer gave Cushing the chance to embody yet another iconic literary character: Sherlock Holmes. Cushing’s innate combination of intelligence and imperiousness meant that Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation was a comfortable fit for him, and supporting turns from frequent co-stars Lee (as Sir Henry Baskerville) and André Morrell (as Doctor Watson) lend the film a familial feel.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was meant to launch a series, but undeserved failure at the box office put a stopper in those plans. Audiences would have to wait almost a decade to see Cushing as the famous detective again, in the 1968 BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes.
Cone of Silence (1960)
Director: Charles Frend
This underrated aviation drama, loosely based on real events, follows Captain Gort (Bernard Lee) – a pilot accused of negligence after a fatal crash. Fellow pilot Dallas (Michael Craig) is convinced that a technical malfunction is to blame; Captain Judd (Cushing) maintains that the fault lies with Gort. The truth is eventually revealed, but not before the body count grows.
Although Cushing isn’t the chief villain, his officiousness and duplicity in pointing the finger at the sympathetic Gort makes him an easy figure to hate. Cone of Silence is crammed with great character actors (Craig, Lee, Morell, George Sanders, Charles Tingwell), but Cushing’s unscrupulous performance leaves the most lasting impression.
Cash on Demand (1961)
Director: Quentin Lawrence
Two years after portraying Holmes and Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Cushing and Morrell would reunite on opposite sides in Cash on Demand: the former as a jobsworth bank manager, and the latter as the charming fellow who robs him. The film is largely a two-hander, as the robbery occurs without the knowledge of the other bank employees.
Taking place on 23 December, Cash on Demand plays like a variation on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; Cushing, at his most breathtakingly prissy and unlikeable, is a perfect Scrooge figure. Still, as Morrell’s charm twists into something more menacing, Cushing’s sweaty evocation of abject terror is convincing enough to provoke some sympathy.
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Director: Freddie Francis
Cushing starred in a number of horror anthologies between the mid-60s and mid-70s. Tales from the Crypt was perhaps the best of them. He plays Grimsdyke, a gentle widowed dustman considered a stain on the neighbourhood by the conceited Elliott (Robin Phillips), who bullies him into suicide – but Grimsdyke manages to take his revenge from beyond the grave…
In a film full of cartoonish violence and unfathomably baroque murder schemes, Cushing’s delicate portrayal of a tormented old man offers some welcome emotional grounding. But when his own moment of extravagant vengeance arrives, it’s with a splash of bloody catharsis.
Star Wars (1977)
Director: George Lucas
In Star Wars, Cushing is Grand Moff Tarkin, the only character capable of ordering Darth Vader around. Although first considered for the heroic Obi-Wan Kenobi (the role would later go to fellow screen legend Alec Guinness), Cushing’s oft-proven ability to play cruel and haughty made him the perfect choice for the human face of the evil Empire.
Cushing’s digital resurrection for a post-death appearance as Tarkin in 2016 Star Wars prequel Rogue One inspired an understandable raft of ethical debates and controversy. Still, that such an unusual step was taken, rather than a recasting or rewriting, is a testament to Cushing’s enduring popularity.