CAPE FEAR A- USA (106 mi) 1962 d: J. Lee Thompson
At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst. —Aristotle, Greek philosopher, 384–322 BC
An American classic neo-noir, coming after Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), often viewed as the end of the American film noir era, along with Jack Smight’s HARPER (1966), John Boorman’s POINT BLANK (1967), Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), John Huston’s CHINATOWN (1974), Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Lawrence Kasdan’s BODY HEAT (1981), and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple (1984), curiously released a few months before Robert Mulligan’s infamous To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), with Gregory Peck playing an earlier version of his morally upright, small-town defense attorney role of Atticus Finch, a paragon of virtue and decency that will forever be associated with his name. This is a variation on a similar theme, set in a small town in North Carolina, but altering Harper Lee’s folksy style to the gritty psychological drama of a relentless pathological stalker, turning into a suspenseful horror/thriller, fairly subversive for its times, creating a legendary work pitting good against evil, with Robert Mitchum reprising his iconic role in The Night of the Hunter (1955), returning as a slimy, recently released ex-con hellbent on getting revenge against his lawyer nemesis who he believes put him behind bars for eight years. Shot in exquisite black and white by Sam Leavitt, one of the last Hollywood films to do so (television shifted to color shortly after the 1963 Kennedy funeral), much of the action is shot at night in the murky shadows of a swampy backwater tributary of the Cape Fear River, while in contrast some city locations were shot in a sun-drenched Savannah, Georgia, though mostly it was shot on Hollywood sets due to MItchum’s aversion to returning to Savannah where he was arrested as a young teenager for vagrancy and put to work on a chain gang (where he allegedly escaped). Despite the banner names and the electrifying material, the disturbing content of sexual sleaze led to mixed reviews, viewed as coarse and vulgar in its time, never becoming a box-office draw, effectively ending Gregory Peck’s attempts to finance his films through his own Melville Productions. It took some persuading, apparently, to get Mitchum to play the part, with British director J. Lee Thompson and Peck as the producer sending him a case of bourbon to his home, which, when finally drank, ultimately sealed the deal. Adapted from an American literary work, the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, though altered significantly, the novel was initially acquired by Gregory Peck while acting in THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), a movie also directed by Thompson, a former boxer and tailgunner in World War II, working here in the Hitchcock mode, getting his start at Britain’s Elstree studios in the late 1930’s working with Hitchock as a dialogue coach on JAMAICA INN (1939), Hitchcock’s last British picture before making the move to America, while a dilapidated motel used in the film is actually the infamous house used in Psycho (1960). Bringing along two of Hitchcock’s art directors as well, Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen, the central focus shows how a typical middle class family can be lured into criminal behavior, where all ethics are thrown out the window when it comes to self-preservation. Hounded and tormented by a sleazy degenerate who pops up at every turn, making veiled threats against his wife and daughter, first allegedly poisoning the family dog, then going after the teenage daughter, literally wreaking havoc, following the family wherever they go, introducing fear into their lives, forcing them to think about him night and day, without a moment’s peace, as he could literally be around any corner, yet he’s smart enough to know the legal parameters he’s operating under, so the police have nothing to charge him with. Nonetheless, his constant presence alters the lives of this respectable family until they can put up with it no more, exhausting all legal means, forced to take more drastic actions.
Cinema does an excellent job illustrating the frustrating depths of psychological warfare, with this film studying some of the darkest areas of human nature, revealing just how deeply someone can get under one’s skin through a constant assault of provocations, where Mitchum as Max Cady exudes a dominating presence, often shot with the camera looking up, where he’s continually portrayed as a larger-than-life figure who thoroughly dominates this film, always addressing his nemesis Peck as “Counselor,” spoken with a mocking derision. Peck, on the other hand, as defense counselor Sam Bowden is a more reserved, introverted and intellectual type, mild-mannered and polite, surrounded by smug, middle class comforts, maintaining a dignifying air of respectability, as he’s one of the mainstays of the community. Married to his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen, known more as a singer in those days, while also doing stage and television theater productions), they have an only child Nancy, (Lori Marten, an extremely bland child actress whose career ended when she could no longer play teenagers), who is spoiled with plenty of attention, given all the things any young girl could want, where they are the picture of domestic happiness. Cady, on the other hand, is a lowlife, pure and simple, reminiscent of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), with no ambitions to aspire to be anything else, yet he is driven by a vengeful desire to destroy the life of Sam Bowden in much the same way he believes his own life was destroyed spending eight long years behind bars. Bowden happened to witness a brutal rape by Cady (though in the film the word “rape” is never used), stumbling upon the scene purely by accident, and it was his court testimony that sent Cady away. Now that he’s released, Bowden is his first target, stopping him at his car, reminding him who he is and what he’s there for, wanting to make his life a living hell, offering coded messages with sinister implications, following him later when his family has a night out at a bowling alley, where his lurking presence constantly watching over them sends Sam to the police chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), who searches for minor infractions to pin on Cady, picking him up for multiple alleged infractions, but he’s always forced to release him, as nothing traces him to a crime, leaving him free to continue his relentless pursuits terrorizing Bowden’s family. This story would be completely different if Cady was unjustly penalized (as he was in the remake), but he committed the crime, so his toxic desire to exact revenge is based on a perversion of justice, as his misogynistic violence is really at the center of the picture, reveling in his own predatory rape behavior, growing utterly ecstatic describing a gruesomely barbaric earlier incident with an ex-wife that’s not fit to print, where he is a vile and irredeemable sexual molester who is simply depraved, so all the built-up fear of what he might do is totally justified, mirroring the paranoid-driven international relations of the times, released the same year as John Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), which is nightmarishly scary. The film was released just a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, putting the world on the brink of a nuclear disaster, the closest the Cold War came to escalating into full-out nuclear war, where our darkest fears were aroused by this strange game of political brinksmanship.
Mitchum speaks with a peculiar Southern accent which isn’t remotely authentic, adding to his mysterious allure, where he personifies a criminal rapist, especially the intent, repeating that behavior by sexually assaulting a woman he picks up at a bar, Dianne Taylor (Barrie Chase), brutalizing her in the process, yet she refuses to press charges. Describing him crudely, “You’re just an animal: coarse, lustful, barbaric,” their initial eye contact is dazzlingly provocative, one of several early scenes exacerbating his perceived threat, where the audience knows something terrible is going to happen to her, much like another tightly constructed sequence where Lori hides from Cady at her school, working herself into a manic frenzy just thinking about an impending attack, where cinema blends her unsettled imagination with a heightened anticipatory experience. Telly Savalas (aka Kojak with hair!!) plays a private detective who attempts to persuade Ms. Taylor to testify, but her real fear is having to provide the nasty intimate details in open court, realizing what damage that would provide to both her family and home town, as her reputation would be ruined, so instead she hops on the first bus out of town. Similarly, Cady knows Bowden would never allow his daughter to testify after an assault, despite any inflicted trauma, as it would stain her otherwise bright future, where people would forever look at her differently, especially in a small town. This fact seems especially pernicious in the American South, where whites would openly testify against blacks for the slightest offenses, often fabricating their testimony, playing into the community’s savage racial hatred against blacks, which is predicated on their own fear of blacks, where rape fantasies were often a way to exact punitive revenge. This exaggerated rape hysteria is part of Southern history and its legacy of slavery. So it’s interesting the film goes into great detail about how Cady’s behavior is openly criminal yet he cleverly protects himself from prosecution, forcing the family to take the law into their own hands, exacting a kind of vigilante justice. It’s a switch for the always-virtuous Gregory Peck to resort to shamefully unethical tactics, like hiring a group of thugs to give Cady a beating, only to have the tables turned and it’s Cady who inflicts most of the damage, giddily calling Sam at home to announce his victory, announcing that he’s coming next for his wife and daughter, “I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t never gonna forget. They ain’t never gonna forget it... and neither will you, Counselor! Nevah!” Meanwhile Cady’s lawyer, Dave Grafton (Jack Kruschen), brings immediate ethics violation charges to have Sam disbarred, which only escalates the stakes, as they have to claw their way out of this predicament, having sunk into a deep morasse. The scintillating finale does not disappoint, tense and nearly wordless, an impeccable build-up of sustained tension, as it’s is a long, drawn-out sequence of great detail, economically shot, beautifully edited, erupting into ferocious violence while interspersed with moments of calm, eliciting shocking moments of hair-raising dread and suspense while remaining thoroughly captivating, all but embracing one’s inner beast. A melee between Mitchum and Polly Bergen was not rehearsed ahead of time, with Bergen indisputably startled by what was happening, as Mitchum smeared raw eggs on her chest while knocking her across the room, inflicting real physical damage, with Mitchum cutting his hand on a cabinet, leaving her bloodied, battered and bruised. Thoroughly unpretentious, especially for a Hollywood movie, these are disturbing scenes of startling realism, where the fear is palpable, exaggerated to further extremes by the atmospheric score of Bernard Hermann, known for his collaborations with Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. The film was remade in 1991 by none other than Martin Scorsese, with Mitchum and Peck both recast in supporting roles, using Hermann’s original score, with Robert De Niro playing an exaggerated version of Max Cady, much more eccentric and out of control, while Mitchum’s swagger and nonchalance make him a more menacing foe, exuding raw animal lust, remaining shirtless for the entire finale, while fashionably rocking those cigars and Panama hats earlier, thoroughly enjoying his role with sadistic relish, where he just seems so comfortable and at ease terrorizing Gregory Peck. That’s part of the film’s charm.