Cash McCall (1960): Film Review

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A screenshot from the trailer of Cash McCall.

Let me break down the anatomy of film for you. There are great films, there are good films, there are bad films, and there are odd films. Movies which fall into this last category can be strangely fascinating and frustrating at the same time; the viewer often lapses into bemused speculation regarding the judgment or even the simple sanity of the producers and directors who brought so strange a monster into semi-existence. These misshapen, fundamentally flawed Frankensteins may contain, among other things, glaring gaps in the story’s logic, blatant sidestepping of the plot’s genuinely interesting aspects, or almost tone-deaf treatments of problematic issues.

While I run the risk of outraging the film’s devotees (and there is a certain number of them), I must place the 1960 film Cash McCall in the category of oddities. I’m more than happy to concede that it is an absorbing, memorable film, but I must then forfeit any possible points by adding that it is absorbing and memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Let’s begin by giving a brief overview of the plot. Grant Austen (Dean Jagger), the owner of a small plastics company, faces financial difficulties and arranges to sell his business to a wealthy young wheeler-and-dealer, unscrupulous, business-first-and-ethics-nowhere personage called Cash McCall, played by none other than James Garner, looking as clean-cut, shiny, and All-American as you can get. Now, it turns out that Jagger’s daughter Lory (a young and equally glossy Natalie Wood) had an Incident with Cash McCall in Maine (of all places) last summer. This Incident is presented in a blurry flashback, aims for a new level of frankness by 1960 standards, and lacks even remote credibility, although it does contain one stellar example of synecdoche.

Still, the romance is resumed by both parties and is proceding smoothly when a wrench is thrown into the gears, out of absolutely nowhere, by a scheming, bitter divorcee (Nina Foch). This woman is the assistant manager of the hotel where Cash has his penthouse, and is treated with utter contempt by the screenwriters, saddled with an outdated, completely unexpected, and deeply embarrassing stereotypical turn as the love-hungry, spurned, vengeful aging woman. She is constantly humiliated by the script, which gratuitously throws in a dash of workplace sexism and a crushing confrontation scene with McCall, as well as letting poor Miss Foch (a wonderful but chronically underused actress) wear a hat almost as unpleasant as her character. This hat, apparently composed of black metal feathers, looks like a rejected sketch for a Maleficent costume and may singlehandedly be responsible for the disappearance of hats from mainstream women’s fashion.

To return to the main point–the business end of McCall’s dealings with Jagger’s family also runs into trouble when Jagger finds out that he’s apparently been cheated by his client, who owns the companies and personnel who counseled Jagger to sell to McCall. And so the rest of the film is devoted to sorting out these business and romantic difficulties in order to achieve a universally satisfactory ending, in which McCall gets the girl, moral superiority, and general approval, as well as points for philanthropy.

The story itself isn’t really so terrible, when examined objectively. As a matter of fact, the film’s real flaws are due to the truly bizarre approach taken by the script to what could have been a morally complex and rewarding character study. Strangely enough, the love story is given second place and the movie’s bulk is devoted to the business deal between Jagger and McCall, with all its implications and consequences. Very few films have the nerve to tackle subjects so specialized and puzzling to the layman; but in the right hands, Cash McCall might have pulled it off. Instead, we are introduced to characters whose potential is limited by the film’s insistence on remaining within the domain of the conventional. There are flashes of fine acting and possibilities of greatness here and there, which makes it even more frustrating when the movie veers back into plodding gentility. Dean Jagger is quite good; Nina Foch is far better than her role deserves; James Garner demonstrates a ruthless singlemindness and astonishingly direct approach to all situations which could have been far more satisfactorily exploited; and character actor Henry Jones rocked this cinemaphile’s world by giving a performance that revealed a depth and skill never once suspected of him hitherto, even in wildest fever-induced movie-themed delirium.

Natalie Wood, on the other hand, does little to make her pairing with Garner plausible; she’s pretty, she’s well dressed in a trim, WASP-ish way, she is supportive and sweet, but one can’t help wishing for someone equal to Garner’s best acting, or a Wood performance on the level of her 1961 turn in Splendor in the Grass. Still, that would be rather useless, given the way the movie is written. As stated before, the film concentrates on the business deal with all the energy and passion it can muster, and the romance takes a puzzled backseat even when it should logically be center-stage. To give only one example; after McCall opens negotiations with his lady-love’s father, he forcibly sweeps the girl away on his private jet to a mansion situated in an isolated land holding of his (yes, he’s that kind of millionaire) and proceeds to explain he’s buying her father’s company so he can get a chance to talk with her and explain about last summer, which leads into the bizarre flashback. Once that’s over, we cut back to Garner and Wood, who then express a wish to take a look at the house and the scene ends on an inconclusive, meaningless note, also depriving viewers of the highly unusual treat of seeing a Hollywood version of a millionaire’s dwelling. Instead, we are plunged back into the thrilling experience of following a business deal from its first steps towards its breath-taking closing.

Once again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong in making a movie about a business deal and shortchanging the romance side of things. Given the fact how many otherwise promising movies are skewed toward the romantic as opposed to all other sides of life, it would be both refreshing and interesting to have a film about business per se. But Cash McCall takes the easy way out of both romance and business by presenting a truncated version of both, and garnishing its semi-factory, semi-original product with sprigs of absurdity and flourishes of unanswered and unexplored question. Interestingly enough, the movie is based on the novel of the same name by Cameron Hawley, who also wrote the novel which served as the basis for the 1952 business-themed ensemble movie Executive Suite. But while there are similar themes in these two films, the end result of the 1960 excursion falls far short of its predecessor’s. Whether that is due to a weakness in the novel, or a mistake in the film writers’ approach is not clear; nevertheless we are left with a movie which cannot with any honesty be lauded as a classic, and which, even more depressingly, contains unformed within it the potential for a truly worthwhile film.

Nevertheless Cash McCall offers many of the pleasures peculiar to the bizarre movie experience. I will not attempt to assemble a complete list of these, but I will note that the Max Steiner score, which does have a pleasingly lyrical love theme as well as an irritating comedic one, also incorporates that composer’s previous successes in novel ways. For instance, Lory and Cash first meet and dance to the accelerated strains of Steiner’s Tara Theme from Gone With the Wind; I believe that the theme from A Summer Place also appears. The script also occasionally erupts into a forced, garden-variety, canned type of archness that adds to the confusion.

Another oddity–the film makes a point of explaining that Cash’s very appropriate first name is not the eminently suitable nickname it appears, but rather his mother’s maiden name, which is somewhat counterintuitive to say the least. Cash’s penthouse apartment also deserves a mention, not least because its living room, bar, and kitchen are at apartment “ground level,” while its bedrooms are located at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Indeed, that reversal of expected norms begins to strike me as a suitable metaphor for the film as a whole, which I suspect will appeal to lovers of classic film as well as that class of filmgoer which appreciates the truly original screen creations which spring from the union of movie conventions with lack of artistic taste.

Do you cherish fond memories of a film that should be, or in fact is, truly awful by artistic standards? Please share the title and a few comments below. Comments defending this film are also more than welcome ; )

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