If there's another film that better showcases Peter Cushing than 1962's Captain Clegg I've yet to see it. He's surrounded by a good cast with Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed, Michael Ripper, and Jack MacGowran, but in addition to the acting talent on display this movie has one of the most satisfying scripts of any Hammer film. Creating a real sense of a world with complex characters who have layers of motivations, Cushing's character in particular shows the perfect confluence of elements that make this a wonderfully engaging mystery.
The film weaves together threads of different genres including mystery, western, and pirate film to make something really fine. Most of my favourite pirate stories, like Treasure Island, have an element of mystery to them. I love the film version with Robert Newton who gets a lot of mileage by seeming perfectly honest and open with Jim even as he's certainly absolutely duplicitous. Cushing's character takes this kind of mystery to another level.
Introduced as the fussy, gentle hearted parson in a small town in the late 18th century, we soon learn he's involved in smuggling liquor, not unlike the smugglers in Fury at Smugglers' Bay. But is that his only secret?
Cushing's character is the sort that holds the viewer's attention because there are so many questions about him, his motives and identity, and Cushing runs with the opportunity in ways many actors wouldn't have the talent for. His routine as the parson has all the assurance of an actor whose played that role many times before, and then you catch a devilish smile on his face and sense there's so much more underneath.
The film has a pretty commonplace romantic subplot about young lovers, played by Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain. Romain plays a barmaid named Imogene with whom Reed's character, Harry, son of the magistrate, is in love. Of course, Reed's delivery adds a lot of dimension to his fairly average lines about his love and devotion to her. He adds depths with his restrained and relaxed energy that nonetheless burns through his eyes. Romain is decent enough, her breasts maybe drawing more attention than her performance. I'm certainly not complaining. They are really a presence in this film--the other actors keep accidentally bumping them, including Reed with a wide gesticulation in one scene.
Patrick Allen plays a captain in the Royal Navy, former arch enemy of Captain Clegg, and now intent on busting the smugglers with a passion that well outstrips the magistrate's interest in the matter. His character, along with Cushing's, helps add to the sense of moral complication to the film, much greater and more satisfying than most Hammer films. Even Reed's relatively simple lovestruck young squire character is more complicated than average when the extent of his participation with the smugglers is in question. This complication is best manifested, though, in the subtly expressed adversarial relationship between Cushing's and Allen's characters.
And on top of all this, the film opens with mysterious skeletal riders and a living scarecrow that terrorise the marsh. All of these elements might seem like too much in other films but this one ties them altogether beautifully, with Cushing as an intriguing centre of gravity.
Twitter Sonnet #987
The hair that seeps between the split'll drain.
A captured chemical equips the breeze.
A flound'ring corpse amends the shape of sane.
In sockets shaved in rinds she always sees.
In pale constructions carved to swim they go.
The folded birds observe as stars descend.
The egret signs adorn the spreading crow.
A ceiling saw what shaking coins upend.
A chomping C engraves the tomb all night.
Forever canvas blanks opine to eat.
Engagements corked remain in bottle sight.
Along the circuit band she sparked a beat.
The rain of muppet worms enriched the air.
On particles they danced like Fred Astaire.