CAPE FEAR (1962) – Universal – Rating: ★★★★
B&W – 105 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Mark Dutton), Jack Kruschen (Dave Grafton), Telly Savalas (Charlie Sievers), Barry Chase (Diane Taylor).
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Cinematography by Sam Leavitt
Editing by George Tomasini
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Art Direction by Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen
Screenplay by James R. Webb
A Hitchcockian thriller: While filming the movie The Guns of Navarone, Gregory Peck acquired the rights to a book called The Executioners for his newly-formed independent production company. He asked his Navarone director, J. Lee Thompson, if he would come to Hollywood to make the picture, and Thompson readily agreed. This was the birth of the movie that would become Cape Fear. Thompson did not set out to deliberately evoke Hitchcock in his movie, but Cape Fear features an editor, music composer, two art directors, a leading actor and a supporting actor who were all associated with Hitchcock, so it is hard to avoid comparison. It is not a true Hitchcock movie in theme or in style, although in camera movements, in economy of shots, in the tightness of the editing, in the evocative score of Bernard Herrmann, it is very Hitchcockian indeed.
The story centers around a prosecuting attorney named Sam Bowden (played by Gregory Peck) a well-respected family man in the prime of life. All of a sudden, a man from his past appears in town. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) spent eight years in prison, primarily because of testimony given by Sam Bowden. And it quickly becomes clear that Cady blames Bowden, and plans on exacting some kind of revenge. Cady gradually insinuates himself into the Bowden’s lives, and more importantly into their psyches. Sam, the law-abiding attorney, tries to use the law to protect himself and his family. But after the family dog is poisoned, and the daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) is traumatized and struck by a car when she feels Cady is stalking her, Bowden begins to feel helpless within the law. Cady always seems to stay just this side of the line, keeping himself above prosecution. And this introduces the major theme of the movie (and the original novel as well): how far would you be willing to go to protect your family? If your career, your entire life, is based on upholding the law, and now that law seems to be failing you, would you cross over to the other side? Would you be willing to commit a crime, even murder, to keep your family safe? Ultimately, Sam Bowden decides he has no choice but to cross that line, using his own wife (Polly Bergen) and daughter to stake out a trap for Max Cady, which leads to the films finale on the Cape Fear river.
Hitchcockian themes: Certainly the theme of introducing menace into an idyllic family setting had been explored by Hitchcock, most notably in his brilliant, underrated Shadow of a Doubt. In that case, the menace comes from within the family, which makes the plot more complex, and twisted. Another theme in Cape Fear that is frequently seen in Hitchcock is the emasculated male. Oftentimes in Hitchcock movies, the male protagonist finds himself in a situation where he feels completely helpless. In Hitchcock, it is often the female protagonist who comes to the rescue. Think of Rear Window: Jimmy Stewart is helpless in his wheelchair, it is Grace Kelly who risks life and limb (literally) climbing in the window of the suspected murderer. At the conclusion of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, the father (Leslie Banks) is helpless, trapped inside the house with the criminals. It is the mother (Edna Best) who snatches a gun from a policeman and shoots the man who is menacing her daughter. In Cape Fear, we do not have this gender reversal, as Gregory Peck eventually overcomes his feelings of inadequacy and rises to the occasion to protect his family. As a matter of fact, one minor quibble about Cape Fear is the subtle sexism in some scenes, certainly a product of the time.
This film shares some visual ideas with Hitchcock as well. First of all in the director’s decision to eschew color photography. As J. Lee Thompson said “I saw it only in black and white.” Of course, Hitchcock had made a similar decision the previous year with Psycho, this at a time when black and white films were already beginning to die out. Of course, both directors used black and white for artistic reasons, and both made the correct decision. Thompson used a lot of interplay with light and shadow, something that Hitchcock had employed in a couple of films, most notably The Wrong Man, and portions of Foreign Correspondent (that film’s windmill interior could almost be a Rembrandt painting, in its interplay of light and shadow). Thompson uses this interplay in a different way however. He designed a “cage” motif, where Mitchum would frequently be shot looking through the bars of a fence, or a wooden lattice, or tall grass, with shadows lining his face, highlighting his animal as well as his criminal qualities, as if he were in a cage, or a cell.
There are other differences as well. First of all, Cape Fear is more overtly sexual than any film Hitchcock had ever made (or ever would make, with the exception of Frenzy). Even coming a year after Hitchcock’s Psycho, which had shocked a generation of movie-goers, and broken new ground in what a movie could show, Cape Fear feels almost contemporary in its raw sexuality. When Max Cady leers at a woman’s backside and says “look at that wiggle”, when he calls the underage Bowden daughter “juicy”, and especially when he breaks the egg over Peggy Bowden and begins to rub the yolk into her cleavage, one can only imagine the discomfort of an early 60’s audience. Part of this sexuality comes from the screenplay, certainly; but a greater part comes from the seemingly effortless portrayal by Mitchum. One taboo that could not be broached in Cape Fear was the rape of a minor. It was certainly implied, but the “R” word was off limits. Sam Bowden says to his wife: “What would you do if Nancy was…attacked?” And we all know what he means, but it could not be uttered directly.
Performance: The performances throughout are stellar. Gregory Peck is playing his typical stalwart all-American model of virtue, a variation of his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch a couple of years earlier. Polly Bergen was better known as a singer than an actress, but she is spot-on in the role of Peck’s wife, a role that requires considerable range, and some challenging scenes. Lori Martin brings the right amount of vulnerability and innocence to the role of the Bowden’s daughter. And then there’s Robert Mitchum. He absolutely exudes menace, along with a raw animal lust, sensuality, and brutality. He was one of the screen’s greatest actors, and this is one of his best performances. Martin Balsam was one of the greatest character actors to ever grace the screen; he brought a genuine, believable quality to every role he played, and his Chief Dutton is no exception. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the brilliant Jack Kruschen, a character actor who buried himself in his parts, truly becoming the character. It’s hard to believe that the man who is playing the shyster southern lawyer Dave Grafton in this movie, is the same man who played the Oscar-nominated Jewish Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Lemmon’s neighbor) in The Apartment just one year previously. Telly Savalas and Barry Chase are also solid in early film roles.
An Alfred Hitchcock team: Several people who worked on this film had worked with Hitchcock in the past, which couldn’t help but influence the way the movie was designed, shot, edited and scored. Let’s take a look at some of these Hitchcock collaborators.
J. Lee Thompson, director: Thompson got his start at Elstree studios in the late 1930’s, initially hired as a screenwriter. He also worked as an assistant to David Lean, who at that time was one of Elstree’s premiere film editors. After this experience he was assigned the job of dialogue coach for Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock’s last British film. Of this experience, Thompson said
I saw the great master at work…Of course I studied Hitchcock, all his films, very carefully, but it is one of my precious memories that I saw him closely at hand at work. He had everything plotted down to the last detail, so it wasn’t a matter of actors coming on set and trying to improvise. He knew exactly what he wanted and, as he said to himself: “I could shoot this from my office, I don’t need to go down on the floor.” Of course he did, but the theory was he worked out every shot, every move, and he didn’t want any actors’ suggestions.
Robert Boyle, art director: Of frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bob Boyle, J. Lee Thompson had the following to say:
It was a supreme pleasure to work with him, knowing that I was very much in tune with Hitchcock. I really had an Alfred Hitchcock team.
George Tomasini, editor: Thompson said of Hitchcock’s favorite editor that
We worked extremely well together. We got the suspense and the right pacing. He understood that perfectly, obviously having worked with Hitchcock.
Bernard Herrmann, composer: Of Herrmann’s work on Cape Fear, Thompson explained that he
said how much he enjoyed it…He kindly compared it to some of Hitchcock’s best films.
Source material: James R. Webb’s screenplay is based on the novel The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald. The film follows the basic structure of the book, with a few exceptions. In the book, the Bowden family has three children, two small boys in addition to the teenage daughter. The final act of the book takes place at the Bowden family farmhouse, rather than on a river. There is no river at all in the book. And Max Cady is killed at the book’s climax. The basic theme of the novel however, is the same as in the book.
Hitchcock connections: Gregory Peck starred in two films for Alfred Hitchcock: Spellbound and The Paradine Case. Martin Balsam had appeared as the detective Arbogast in Psycho. Edward Platt (who most people will recognize as the Chief from Get Smart) played a judge in one scene in North by Northwest, just as he plays a judge in one scene in this movie. Editor George Tomasini also cut nine of Hitchcock’s films, including many of his best-known films from the 50’s and 60’s. Bernard Herrmann famously collaborated with Hitchcock several times, doing some of his best work as a film composer in the process. Both of the art directors on this film had also worked with Hitchcock before. Robert Boyle had been involved in several Hitchcock films, including Saboteur and North by Northwest. And Alexander Golitzen had received an Academy Award nomination for his art direction on Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. And last but certainly not least, director J. Lee Thompson was a dialogue coach on Hitchcock’s last British film, Jamaica Inn.
Remake: Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear in 1991. Many moviegoers today are probably more familiar with his version than the original. As a matter of fact, many people may not even be aware that Scorsese’s version is a remake. The updated film is definitely worthy of a viewing, and has many admirable updates in plot and execution. One of the nice touches in the remake is the appearance of Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in cameos, also with a bit of role reversal (Peck plays the shyster lawyer who represents Cady, while Mitchum plays a police Lieutenant.) An ailing Martin Balsam also has a cameo.
Definitive edition: The Universal blu-ray (released in 2013) has a very crisp, clear image. The two-channel audio really highlights Bernard Herrmann’s score, which sounds great. The dialogue is discernible, but not as clear as the score. The blu-ray includes a 28-minute documentary, which features interview footage of both director J. Lee Thompson and star Gregory Peck, reminiscing about the film. Also included are the original theatrical trailer, and a 5-minute montage of behind-the-scenes and promotional stills, intercut with short clips from the movie.