Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Best Hitchcock Films…That Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon: Cape Fear (1962)



This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) Blogathon, currently underway from July 7-12 and jointly hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and ClassicBecky’s Brain FoodFor a complete list of the participants and films covered, check it all out here.


Georgia attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) has just put in a full day’s work lawyering and is ready to go home to wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) when a lanky, sleepy-eyed stranger reaches into his vehicle and grabs his car keys.  As it turns out, he’s no stranger—he’s an ex-con named Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), and in his conversation with Bowden, Cady makes it abundantly clear that he plans to stick around in Sam’s neck of the woods for a while because he has a score to settle with the man he addresses as “Councilor” with mock respect.  Eight years ago in Baltimore, Cady attacked a young woman and Bowden, who heard the woman’s cries for help as he was headed back to his hotel room, came to her rescue…even going so far as to being the key witness at the trial that put Cady away for that eight-year length of time.  Cady holds Bowden responsible for his little stay with the state, and he’s out for revenge.

But Cady’s boardin’ with the warden has taught him a few things, and he’s become familiar with what is known as “jailhouse law.”  He never comes right out and threatens Sam, so Bowden technically has no reason to have Police Chief (and friend) Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) introduce Max to the inside of one of Georgia’s jails.  Cady’s made sure that he has money in the bank, so they can’t get him for vagrancy…and when Dutton has his men lean on Max with a little old-fashioned rousting Cady hires a civil liberties attorney named Dave Grafton (Jack Kruschen) to look out for his interests.  But Cady’s subtle intimidation starts to work on Sam (the Bowden family’s dog is poisoned, and they’re convinced Cady was responsible) and the lawyer is forced to seek outside assistance from a private detective, Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas).  Sievers even tries to get a woman whom Cady has savagely beaten, Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase), to testify against him and put him away but she demurs, fearing for both her safety and reputation. 

“Let’s be careful out there.”  Balsam’s police chief must work in the 87th Precinct, since the names on that board behind him all belong to detectives in the novels of Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter).  (I’ve never seen the TV series, so it’s possible it may be the same set.)

Sievers finally advises his client (Sam) that legal niceties are all well and good, but some animals need to be put down with a bullet to the brainpan.  When Nancy is terrorized at her school by Cady, Bowden gives Charlie the okay to have some thugs work Cady over, and when one of the men confesses that Bowden was indirectly responsible it gives both Cady and Grafton the ammunition they need to institute disbarment proceedings against Sam in the first step to making his life a living hell.  So Bowden decides on his next course of action: luring Cady into a trap by using both Peggy and Nancy as bait by putting them on the family houseboat and lying for wait for his nemesis in a memorable sweat-inducing climax.

In The Making of Cape Fear, a featurette on the 2001 DVD release of the classic 1962 movie, actor Gregory Peck recalled that adapting John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners to the silver screen was a project instituted by his production company, Melville-Talbot Productions (the “Melville” being a nod to Peck’s role as Captain Ahab in the 1956 film version of Moby Dick, no doubt).  But Peck didn’t care for MacDonald’s title, and after seeing “Cape Fear River” on a map he decided to dub the film Cape Fear.  Peck actually hadn’t planned on starring in the film; the role of attorney Sam Bowden had been intended for Charlton Heston (other actors considered included Jack Palance, John Wayne, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson) but Peck stepped in at the last minute.  As for antagonist Cady, the late Ernest Borgnine had been offered the part but he declined…and Rod Steiger wanted the part but backed off when he heard the smart money was on Big Bad Bob.  I’m no casting director (nor do I play one on TV), but in retrospect it’s hard to believe that anyone besides Mitchum was considered…for me it’s his signature film role, even though many folks would probably argue in favor of Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter.  Powell is a little too cartoonish for my tastes…Max Cady is just plain bad news, with a countenance in which evil not only lurks, it gloats.

In this scene, Mitchum’s Cady peers over a railing at a marina and watches the nubile young Nancy (Lori Martin).  Director Thompson was warned by the censors that the Cady character must not have a “lascivious” look on his face…which is sort of like telling Bruce Willis he has to lose the smirk.

Peck definitely knew who he wanted to direct the film: he was working with J. Lee Thompson on The Guns of Navarone when he gave Thompson MacDonald’s book to read, and the director definitely wanted in.  Thompson also wanted to cast Hayley Mills in the role of daughter Nancy (he had directed her in her formal film debut, Tiger Bay) but she was under exclusive contract to Walt Disney.  So Thompson had to settle for Lori Martin, at that time the star of TV’s National Velvet…but lamented years afterward that he wished he could have used Mills in the part.

In Thompson’s hands, Cape Fear became a Hitchcockian suspenser…chiefly because the director was quite fond of The Master of Suspense’s work (he would often tackle a problem on set by asking “What would Hitch do?”), and the homage to his idol can be seen in the striking camera and lighting angles, exhilarating moments of suspense, and the tweaking he had to do in the film’s subject matter to please the censors.  He also had a charismatic villain in Mitchum’s Cady, and a protagonist (Bowden) who finds his own morality a bit muddied after coming into contact with same.  Because Cape Fear was filmed at Universal-International, Thompson was able to utilize the services of art director Robert F. Boyle and film editor George Thomasini, both of whom had worked on previous Hitchcock movies.  And the icing on the cake was provided when longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann agreed to contribute the pulse-pounding musical score for the film…which bears a striking similarity to Psycho in many passages.

A little visual evidence of the Hitchcock influence: the motel where Mitchum’s Cady takes Barrie Chase’s Diane Taylor is actually the Bates house from Psycho (wisely, the chief of police played by Martin Balsam does not go near that stairway).

The location shooting for Cape Fear has always been of large interest to me because though there was much interior work done at Universal, outside shots were done in both Stockton, California (the marina and houseboat scenes)…and my old stomping grounds of Savannah, Georgia.  I discovered this the very time I saw the movie sometime back in the 1980s on TBS…and it was my late step-gran (my mom’s stepmother) who remarked that the background in the beginning of the film looked quite similar to Savannah.  I was a bit skeptical at first, but when I saw Mitchum’s character making his way up the stairs outside the City Hall building in the film, I knew she was absolutely right.

Peck’s Bowden stops momentarily outside the U.S. Customs House in downtown Savannah.  If I had a nickel for every time I walked past that place…well, I could retire from blogging, for one thing.
The choice of Savannah for much of the location shooting actually worked to the film’s benefit.  Co-star Mitchum, a self-described “wild boy of the road,” spent a brief period of his youth in The State of Chatham when he was picked up for vagrancy (he was 14) and made the guest of the county work farm.  By Mitchum’s account, he escaped and made his way back to his family’s home in Delaware.  But the grandfather of a Savannah friend of mine (I’ve talked about “Chief” on the blog in the past), who was one of Mitchum’s “roommates,” informed me that although Bob might have jumped the fence none of the guards were particularly anxious to go out and recapture him.  “He was so goddamned ornery they let him escape!” my friend’s grandfather explained, laughing.  (He and Mitchum remained good friends, often dining together whenever the actor made a rare sojourn to Savannah.)  But the experience left a bad taste in Bob’s mouth, and the chip-on-his-shoulder for The Pretty Lady with the Dirty Face only complements the tension in many of the movie’s scenes.

Um…it’s not that beautiful.
We used to have an exterminator come to our house in Savannah once a month, and one time (I forget how we arrived to this point in the conversation) he revealed to me he had Lori Martin’s autograph because he was an extra in Cape Fear in the waterskiing scenes.  So now when my family and I watch this movie and get to this point in the narrative, we all yell out “Marv!” (That was the first name of our beloved “bug man.”)
Although Cape Fear is held in high esteem by many movie buffs today (Martin Scorsese even remade the film in 1991, and featured Peck, Balsam and Mitchum in small roles as an homage) the film was not a financial success (and as such, Peck’s production company dissolved shortly after).  Its many Savannah connections are no doubt the reason why I find myself returning to the film every few years or so, but even without the Savannah backgrounds I’d still be fond of the movie—as I mentioned earlier, I consider it Mitchum’s best onscreen performance and Peck is great at what he does best, playing the noble liberal (even if he should just send Cady to an early grave like he did that rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird).  Along with fine support from Bergen (who suffered for her art; her confrontation with Mitchum in one of the film’s climactic scenes left her bruised and saddled with a bad back), Martin, Balsam (the man is incapable of giving a bad performance), Kruschen and Savalas, you’ll also spot the head of CONTROL, Ed Platt, in a small role as a judge and OTR veteran Will Wright as a doctor testifying in a case being tried by Peck’s Bowden.  The strong sexual content (rape and assault) and theme of women in jeopardy would have made it a natural for Hitchcock’s direction.  But under the supervision of J. Lee Thompson, he demonstrates that he paid mighty close attention to The Master of Suspense.

16 comments:

Film Flare said...

I've only seen Scorsese's remake, but your review got my attention, so I'll be watching the original. Plus I really like the actors.

I agree that's the best kind of role for Peck (I've only seen him play a shady character once, and I just couldn't buy it), and Mitchum looks perfect as Max. De Niro even looks a bit like him. Also, if it does resonate Hitchcock's style than that just makes it even more interesting.

Paul Dionne said...

Well Ian, definitely interesting as Stockton is now home to me; my wife and I in fact just watched Cape Fear recently. IMDB says the Stockton scenes were filmed at Ladds Marina, a business still in existence: http://www.laddsmarina.com/ . That's where the San Joaquin delta begins to the west of us and now I imagine all the ending houseboat scenes were filmed because that looks like the delta to me. Stockton - where John Brown's body is buried; where Russ Meyer is buried - the cemetary where he is interred is about 3 miles north of me here at my work place; Cool Hand Luke, and now....Cape Fear. Great write-up Ian.

Scott said...

Terrific write-up, Ivan. I've never seen the original, to my shame, but now it's in queue.

Small editorial glitch -- in the first graph you have the daughter played by "Lori Nelson," which had me slightly confused, thinking, "Wait, the woman who played a scientist in Revenge of the Creature in 1955 was playing a school girl in 1962? Ahhh, Movies. You are magic!"

Caftan Woman said...

Just thinking about Mitchum as Max Cady can make my skin crawl. Such pure nastiness seems to jump right off the screen.

It was very interesting to discovery those Hitchcock connections. Hooray to Mr. Thompson for creating one of the most suspenseful climaxes in a film. Even on re-watches you can feel that sticky heat and realize you've forgotten to breathe.

Loved this article.

Jeff Flugel said...

Excellent review, Ivan! I prefer this film to the Scorcese remake for many of the reasons you mentioned: the cast, locations, black and white cinematography and Thompson's fine homage to Hitchcock's suspense-building technique.

Thanks also for sharing the personal anecdotes about Savannah and Mitchum, one of my favorite actors, who really digs deep into the nasty, leering part of Max Cady.

said...

Ivan, Cape Fear is a great thriller, very Hitchcockian. The leads were very well chosen but I kept thinking what it would have been with some of the names that were considered.
Maybe the clearest Hitch reference is the family in jeopardy, including a little girl.
Greetings,
Le

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Film Flare admitted:

I've only seen Scorsese's remake, but your review got my attention, so I'll be watching the original.

While Mr. Flugel announced:

I prefer this film to the Scorcese remake for many of the reasons you mentioned: the cast, locations, black and white cinematography and Thompson's fine homage to Hitchcock's suspense-building technique.

I saw the Scorsese remake when it was out in theaters...and while I don't dislike Marty's version, I agree with Jeff that the original is just a little bit superior, as The Church Lady used to say. Scorsese's film plays more like a horror movie, which is why I think a lot of people are drawn to it...while the Thompson original is more of a psychological exercise, and because they were really tight-assed about how you could approach the subject matter back then, I like the subtlety present in that movie.

I think the big problem with the 1991 treatment is that the family in that film is pretty fucked up to begin with. Getting a visit from DeNiro's ex-con (who is definitely channeling Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter) doesn't have the impact that it does in the 1962 movie, where the final shot of the family suggests that their lives aren't quite the same after the experience.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Mr. Dionne shared:

Well Ian, definitely interesting as Stockton is now home to me

I guess I made the right call in editing out that "Stockton bake sale" joke.

What I find interesting about the scenes shot at Ladd's Marina is that the boat that Lori Martin's character is scrubbing has a Georgia registration sticker on the side...so I don't know if that particular shot was done in Georgia or Stockton...if it was Stockton, kudos to the continuity people for not screwing that up.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Scott C. proofread:

Small editorial glitch -- in the first graph you have the daughter played by "Lori Nelson," which had me slightly confused, thinking, "Wait, the woman who played a scientist in Revenge of the Creature in 1955 was playing a school girl in 1962? Ahhh, Movies. You are magic!"

Arrrgh! I always do that, and I have no idea why -- the two actresses are nothing alike, and yet I always write "Nelson" when I mean "Martin." (I even did it in a later paragraph, but I corrected that one before it went to post...I should have checked the whole piece.) It might have something to do with the fact that the MST3K send-up of Revenge of the Creature is one of my all-time favorite romps of the series.

So thanks for pointing out my boo-boo...and start watching the 1962 Fear stat!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Our Lady of Great Caftan wrote:

Just thinking about Mitchum as Max Cady can make my skin crawl. Such pure nastiness seems to jump right off the screen.

Mitchum is the Big Bad Wolf in this one, with Martin and Bergen trading off as Red Riding Hood. Plain b-b-b-bad to the bone. And thanks for "loving my article," CW.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Lê said:

The leads were very well chosen but I kept thinking what it would have been with some of the names that were considered.

I'm not sure how John Wayne got considered for the part of Bowden, but I definitely think Charlton Heston would have been good. Ernie Borgnine might have been a good Cady, but I think once Mitchum was on board you just knew it was going to be his show. Definitely would have liked to see what Hayley Mills would have brought to the table.

Maybe the clearest Hitch reference is the family in jeopardy, including a little girl.

Very good point...thanks for pointing it out!

DorianTB said...

Ivan, at last I've caught up with you and CAPE FEAR (the original; accept no substitutes!), and your blog post was well worth the wait! For me, just seeing Ed McBain's 87th Precinct characters getting a sly cameo was worth the price of admission, so to speak. How very cool, and what sharp little eyes you've got! :-) I liked the "Melville" anecdote, too.

Considering so many folks who worked with Hitchcock happened to be among the cast and crew, CAPE FEAR was practically a Hitchcock film already: Bernard Herrmann, Robert F. Boyle, George Tomasini, and Martin Balsom in the cast - wow! And I can't help wondering how Hayley Mills would've fared as Gregory Peck's daughter (quite well, I'm sure). Great anecdotes about Robert Mitchum, too. I especially liked this line: "Max Cady is just plain bad news, with a countenance in which evil not only lurks, it GLOATS." By the way, Kyle Baker's 1998 graphic novel YOU ARE HERE includes a villain who's the spitting image of CAPE FEAR's Max Cady! BRAVO on a stellar post, Ivan, and thanks for being part of our Blogathon; you're swell!

Dawn said...

Cape Fear(1962), is one of my favorite thrillers. Robert Mitchum, was perfect as the diabolical Max Cady. He is always the perfect villain, who you always love to hate.

I'm so glad that Gregory Peck, took the role as Sam Bowden. I can not see any one else in the part as the brave attorney, protecting his family.

silverscreenings said...

I am another who has never seen this movie and I'm really glad to see your review!

Also, I think you're the only person I've heard of who says Savannah is "not that beautiful". Are you allowed to say that?

The Lady Eve said...

Ivan, "Sweat-inducing climax," indeed, it's enough to make the terrified viewer press the mute button.

A gold mine of back story here. I knew Bernard Herrmann had scored the film, but didn't know Robert F. Boyle and George Tomasini were involved. This is one film with a "Hitchcockian" crew.

I personally like Robert Mitchum's work in "The Night of the Hunter." It seems to me that the style of the film, allegorical and visually expressionistic, informed his performance. He was playing very stylized evil. Though there are differences, the character does seem to anticipate Max Cady.

Rich said...

Interesting that you think Mitchum's role in 'Hunter' is cartoony; I would've said that about his role here, although I too, love the film. His role in 'Hunter' suggests more of a history, to me, one filled with contradictions. In 'Fear' he seems like he's just out for revenge. But like I said, I still enjoy it, especially the music.