While constructing the movie Spellbound Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely bursting with ideas. In this piece I would like to take a look at one sequence that is full of ideas, and also incorporates many of Hitchcock’s favorite visual motifs in one sequence: montage, the long take, and the subjective point of view.
This sequence takes place at the house of Dr. Brulov. It lasts around 5 minutes and 3 seconds, with 22 pieces of film.
We begin with a fade-in from black. Gregory Peck’s character wakes up at the foot of the bed, gets up, walks to the bathroom and turns on the light. This runs around 55 seconds with no cuts.
The first cut is a very nice reverse as Peck flicks on the light; from being outside the bathroom, in shadows, we are now inside the bathroom in bright light. Peck walks to the sink, in a dreamlike state, drinks water, looks and touches his face, sees shaving apparatus and begins to lather up to shave. This all takes about 53 seconds with no cut.
At this point, after two long takes that run about 108 seconds combined, the cutting increases dramatically. There will be 12 editorial cuts in the next 30 seconds. As the cutting shifts into high gear, the point of view changes as well. Hitchcock now employs his subjective POV. Our first subjective shot is a close-up of the white shaving cup.
Hitchcock then cuts to Peck hastily putting the cup down. Then we get a quick series of images and reaction shots, as Peak swivels his head around the room, overwhelmed by the bright white surfaces everywhere.
First he looks at the white sink.
Then he looks at the white chair to the left of the sink.
Next he whirls around and notices the white counter top, upon which even the jars are white.
And finally he turns to the white bathtub.
He walks out the bathroom door, and we cut again on a reverse. Peck is back in shadows, only now he is holding the razor blade in his hand.
At this point the cutting slows down, heightening the tension. Hitchcock returns to the subjective POV as Peck looks at the white bedspread, following it up to the sleeping face of Ingrid Bergman.
Peck slowly walks into the room, moving close to Ingrid Bergman, the threat of the knife still visible in his hand. Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Bergman, highlighting her vulnerability. Will the sleepwalking Peck kill her?
Instead Peck walks out the door to the landing. Then Hitchcock employs a fantastic shot, in which Peck walks downstairs, razor in hand, and walks into a closeup on the razor. This lasts around 35 seconds without a cut.
Then begins the longest shot of the sequence, running around 75 seconds without an editorial cut. We start with a subjective POV shot of actor Michael Chevhok, as Dr. Brulov, at his desk. Chekhov walks up to Peck, the visible threat of the knife gleaming.
The camera turns to follow Chekhov as he walks into the kitchen and out of frame, although we can still hear him talking. He then walks back into frame. This entire time, the razor is prominently displayed.
The camera then turns to follow Chekhov back to the desk, returning to a subjective point of view without cutting. Chekhov has his back to the camera as he pours the milk (to disguise the fact that he is drugging it, as we will learn later). He then walks back and hands the glass to Peck. All of this happens with no editorial cutting.
Finally we cut to a reverse of Peck as he prepares to drink the milk.
The sequence ends with this very clever shot, a POV shot seen through the glass of milk! As the glass tips up, the frame turns to white. And as the sequence began on a fade-in from black, it ends on a fade-out to white. A fitting end, since white is the color that triggers Peck’s episodes.
In a span of only five minutes, Hitchcock heightens the tension of the scene by employing several techniques. First of all in the cutting, which begins with long takes, then moves to a short montage of quick cutting as Peck reacts to all the white objects in the bathroom, and finally stretching out again to longer takes at the end. He also creates tension through the prominent placement of the razor in the frame. It is never used (or even held) in a threatening manner, but it feels menacing because of how it is shot, and lit. And finally tension is heightened through the use of clever subjective POV shots.
I will close with some comments Hitchcock made about this sequence in an article he penned in 1946:
Here is one way of making drama out of camera angles. In Spellbound you’ll remember the scene where Gregory Peck comes down a curving flight of stairs with an open razor in his hand…Now, in that scene I hardly move the camera at all. It is placed facing the stairs and Gregory walks right into the camera — right into the audience. As he gets closer his face and shoulders fade from the lens until all you can see is the razor in his hand. Then the camera moves.
But there’s no dialogue and really very little movement. The whole scene depends on suspense and the use of camera. We pan to the doctor and hold him while he talks to Gregory…The doctor moves off to give him a glass of milk –which, incidentally, he dopes — and the camera stays with Gregory. Back comes the doctor and hands him the glass of milk.
The camera moves to a back shot, so that the audience is behind his eyes as he drinks. You get the impression of the white liquid obscuring his sight as he tilts the glass. This is doubly effective because in the film white is the color which affects his mind.
The secret of good directing is to remember that you are telling a story visually. Your medium is that of sound and sight. The screen should tell this story as much as possible — not the dialogue.
SPELLBOUND – 1945 – Selznick International Pictures – ★★★1/2
B&W – 111 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Petersen), Gregory Peck (Dr. Anthony Edwardes/John Ballantyne), Michael Chekov (Dr. Alexander Brulov), Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Murchison), Rhonda Fleming (Mary Carmichael), Normal Lloyd (Mr. Garmes).
Screenplay by Ben Hecht, Adaptation by Angus MacPhail from the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding.
Cinematography by George Barnes
Edited by Hal C. Kern
Music by Miklos Rozsa
Dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali
A film full of ideas: When Alfred Hitchcock began production on Spellbound, he was in the fifth year of his contract with David O. Selznick, and yet they had only made one movie together (Rebecca). Selznick had loaned Hitchcock out to other studios on film after film, to the benefit of both; Selznick made a tidy profit, while Hitchcock enjoyed a level of autonomy he would not otherwise have. Now Hitchcock was coming home to roost, and while he might not have been perfectly happy being under Selznick’s thumb again, he brought a multitude of strong ideas to this film.
The plot is an interesting variation on Hitchcock’s “wrong man” theme. In this case, a man shows up at a mental hospital calling himself Dr. Edwardes, the new head of the facility. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) has some peculiar personality traits. Seeing the color white (particular with a linear pattern) makes him turn away in revulsion. He also falls instantly in love with Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). Eventually we learn that Peck is not Edwardes. So who is he, then? And where is the real Dr. Edwardes?
Peck goes on the run, chased by the police while unaware of his identity. He is helped in his quest by Ingrid Bergman, who tries to be Peck’s therapist despite the fact that she is deeply in love with him. Over the course of the movie Peck discovers the truth of who he is, and the nature of his phobia. The real Dr. Edwardes is found dead (after all, it wouldn’t be Hitchcock without at least one murder, would it?) and the culprit discovered. What makes this film so different from Hitchcock’s other “man on the run” films is that the character’s journey is as much psychological as physical. Let’s take a look at some of Hitchcock’s methods of visual narrative in this film.
Constance Petersen is presented as cold, sterile, virginal in her early scenes. She is clearly the intellectual superior of her male colleagues, who view her as just a pretty woman. It is no accident that in her first session, her patient (Rhonda Fleming) is a nymphomaniac, a polar opposite of Constance.
Constance begins to fall for “Dr. Edwardes” the moment she meets him, and after they spend an afternoon together she finds herself even more drawn to him. She comes back to the manor in a state of physical and emotional dishevelment. Hitchcock here employs one of his typical subjective POV shots, as Constance joins her (all male) colleagues for dinner.
Later the same evening, Constance and “Edwardes” kiss, and Hitchcock uses a clever visual motif of a series of opening doors.
Later “Edwardes” flees Green Manor when he is found to be an impostor, and Constance tracks him to a New York hotel. There is a funny scene here, where Constance first rebuffs a drunken man in the hotel lobby, then uses the hotel detective to help her find Edwardes. He calls himself an amateur psychologist, thinking he is impressing this pretty young woman with his acumen, not realizing that he is being played.
The next sequence of the film takes place at the home of Constance’s mentor Dr. Brulov, a sort of stand-in for Freud, with a Germanic accent and European look. During the night Edwardes has a fugue episode ( look for a deconstruction of this scene as my next post). The following day, Brulov and Constance interpret Edwardes’ dreams.
Hitchcock and Dali: Alfred Hitchcock wanted Salvador Dali to assist in designing the dream sequence for Spellbound and Selznick acquiesced. After some negotiations, a deal was struck. Dali initially created several paintings which he shared with Hitchcock and his creative team.
There is a persistent rumor that the sequence was originally planned to run twenty minutes in length. There is no evidence that it was ever intended to be that long, but it was initially going to be at least a couple minutes longer. One sequence that was filmed was cut entirely.
Scenes from the gambling house sequence:
The rooftop sequence, and conclusion:
Below are some scenes from the deleted sequence, which would have played between the gambling house and rooftop sequences.
This sequence features an orchestra suspended from above, as well as several pianos. The pianos are smaller than normal, so little people were used as background dancers to aid with the perspective. Neither Hitchcock or Dali was happy with the result. Next, the scene would show Bergman turning into a statue. They filmed Ingrid Bergman breaking out of a statue-like shell, then planned to run the sequence in reverse to get the desired effect.
Ultimately, David Selznick was unhappy with the dream sequence, so not only was a sequence cut from it, but the resulting sequences were chopped into smaller segments, with Gregory Peck’s narration bridging the gaps. It would be interesting to see the sequence play out as Dali originally intended it. Unfortunately the excised footage is believed to be gone.
Psychological resolution, story resolution: Gregory Peck’s character has the breakthrough he has been seeking, with the help of Brulov and Constance. He remembers who he is (John Ballantyne) and he also remembers that he accidentally killed his brother when they were children, a guilt he has been suppressing for years.
Finally Ballantyne gets to the bottom of his revulsion of parallel lines on a white surface. (It has to do with skiing). Unfortunately, just as the film looks like it will end happily, Ballantyne is convicted of the murder of the real Dr. Edwardes. Just as Constance helped Ballantyne cure his psychological problems, she will now save the day again, playing detective and finding the real killer.
When Dr. Murchison is discovered as the killer, he trains his gun on Constance. Hitchcock wanted a subjective POV shot, but he wanted the gun and Ingrid Bergman to remain in focus. The only way to pull that off was to construct a giant hand holding a giant gun.
Hitchcock was not quite out of tricks yet. At the sound of the gun flash, Hitchcock insisted on two frames of red colored film. Each negative had to be individually hand painted when they went out for distribution. The timing is such that Hitchcock felt most people would not even consciously register it, but he felt it would have an emotional impact.
Performance: Alfred Hitchcock expressed some displeasure with Gregory Peck’s performance in the movie. I think Peck was just right for this part. There are elements to his character that could not have been pulled off by Cary Grant, for instance. Peck is solid and always believable. Ingrid Bergman was already a big star by this time, and she looks and plays the part. Exquisitely beautiful, but full of inner strength, she owns this role completely. Constance Petersen is one of the strongest female leads in all of Hitchcock’s films, and nobody could have surpassed what Bergman does with the part. Michael Chekov, who is doing a variation on Freud as Dr. Brulov, very much deserved his Oscar nomination. Even the smaller roles are memorable, as Hitchcock favorites Norman Lloyd and Wallace Ford make the most of small roles. And Rhonda Fleming is unforgettable. Leo G. Carroll is another in the long line of suave, sophisticated Hitchcock villains.
Source material: Hitchcock’s film is based on the 1928 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders under the pseudonym Francis Beeding. The novel is dramatically different from the resulting film adaptation. In the novel, Constance Sedgwick is newly arrived at Chateau Landry, a mental asylum in the French mountains. The man calling himself Dr. Murchison, the man in charge of the asylum, is actually a homicidal maniac who has switched places with the real doctor and imprisoned him in a cell. The murderer, a man named Godstone, begins to exert a strong influence over the other patients, and the staff. Godstone is a devil worshipper, who has crosses tattooed on the soles of his feet. The book is pretty dark (including a couple of deaths), but retains a slightly comic tone at times. The plot is far too ridiculous to take seriously. I wonder if Poe’s story “The Tale of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” provided some inspiration, for it shares some general details of both plot and tone. As long as one doesn’t attempt to take it seriously, it is an enjoyable if insubstantial read.
Enter the theremin: Just as Hitchcock was full of visual ideas, he had plenty of thoughts about the music as well. Composer Miklos Rozsa used the theramin as part of the musical score at Hitchcock’s request. The theramin (named after its inventor, Leon Theramin) is unique among musical instruments in that it is played without actually touching it. It emits electromagnetic waves, which are “played” by moving the hands around two metal rods. The theramin creates an ethereal sound that became popular in science fiction movies in the 50’s, but Rozsa pioneered its use in cinema. Rozsa’s score was rewarded with an Oscar win.
Below you can watch theramin virtuoso (and third-generation relative of inventor Leon Theramin) Lydia Kavina play part of Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound score.
Recurring players: Ingrid Bergman would later star in Notorious and Under Capricorn. Gregory Peck would also star in The Paradine Case. Hitchcock employed the services of Leo G. Carroll more than any other actor. He also appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. Norman Lloyd had appeared as Fry, the man who falls from the Statue of Liberty, in Saboteur. Steven Geray (Dr. Graff) would later play a hotel desk clerk in To Catch a Thief. Wallace Ford (man from Pittsburgh in hotel lobby) had played Detective Saunders in Shadow of a Doubt. Irving Bacon (railway gateman) played a similar role in Shadow of a Doubt. Constance Purdy (Dr. Brulov’s housekeeper) had played the landlady to Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in the opening scenes of Shadow of a Doubt. Clarence Straigh (secretary at police station) would later play a policeman in The Wrong Man.
Academy Awards: Miklos Rozsa won the Oscar for Best Musical Score for Spellbound. The movie was also nominated in five other categories: Best Picture (David O. Selznick), Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Black and White Cinematography (George Barnes) and Best Special Effects (Jack Cosgrove).
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s cameo comes at around 43:06. He can be seen exiting an elevator in the lobby of the Empire State Hotel.
What Hitch said: When Hitchcock spoke with Truffaut, he was fairly dismissive of the film. I wonder if this is in part because Truffaut says he finds the film a disappointment. Hitchcock says “Well, it’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis…Since psychoanalysis was involved, there was a reluctance to fantasize; we tried to use a logical approach to the man’s adventure.”
He added “The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.”
Definitive edition: The 2012 MGM/Fox blu ray is the best edition currently available. Picture and sound quality are good, not great. Included are a commentary track with film scholars Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg (probably my least favorite commentary track on any Hitchcock release), a 21-minute documentary on the Dali dream sequence, a 20-minute documentary on psychoanalysis, a ten-minute interview segment with actress Rhonda Fleming, a Lux Radio Theater version starring Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, a 15-minute audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich and Hitchcock, and the original theatrical trailer.
There is also a (now out of print) DVD version from Criterion, which features a strong, scholarly commentary by Marion Keane, an illustrated essay on the Dali dream sequence, an audio interview of Miklos Rozsa, a public radio piece on the theramin, hundreds of photos, the same Lux Radio Theater version that appears on the MGM/Fox blu ray, and the trailer.
Principal cast: Gregory Peck (Anthony Keane), Ann Todd (Gay Keane), Alida Valli (Mrs. Paradine), Louis Jourdan (Andre Latour), Charles Laughton (Judge Horfield), Charles Coburn (Sir Simon Flaquer), Ethel Barrymore (Lady Horfield).
Screenplay by David O. Selznick, adapted by Alma Reville from the novel by Robert Hichens.
Cinematography by Lee Garmes
Edited by Hal C. Kern
Music by Franz Waxman
A troubled ending: When Hitchcock entered into production on this movie in 1947, he knew it would be the last film on his contract with David O. Selznick. While Hitchcock was dedicated to the film, his mind was already on his next project, which he planned to make as an independent producer. The process of making The Paradine Case was in many ways a mirror of the Hitchcock/Selznick relationship. It began with much promise, and deteriorated over time. A controlling producer and disinterested director are not an ideal combination for great filmmaking.
The Story: The story of The Paradine Case is excellent. Alida Valli plays Mrs. Paradine, a woman accused of murdering her husband. Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, the lawyer hired to defend her in court. Over time, Peck becomes infatuated with Mrs. Paradine, actually confessing to being in love with her at one point. As Keane develops an obsession with Mrs. Paradine, his work and his marriage begin to suffer. Keane’s wife, played by Ann Todd, is well aware of his feelings for his client, and yet urges him on in trying the case. The situation is further complicated by the judge assigned to oversee the case. Judge Horfield, played to perfection by Charles Laughton, has a strong attraction to Mrs. Keane. He makes a pass at her, while her husband is standing just feet away, unaware. She rebuffs him. Will his anger at being turned away affect his judgment in the case at hand?
As if that is not enough drama, there is another element added by Mr. Paradine’s valet Andre Latour, played by Louis Jourdan. Anthony Keane wants to imply that Jourdan’s character may be the real murderer, but Mrs. Paradine opposes this line of defense. Is it possible that she has feelings for the valet? Ultimately, Keane’s monomania threatens to destroy his client’s case, his career, and his marriage. He is able to salvage one of these three things.
The first half of the movie deals with the build-up to the trial, and Keane’s growing fascination. The second (and far superior) portion of the film focuses on the trial.
Conflict on the set: Much like the character of Anthony Keane obsessing over his client, David O. Selznick obsessed over the movie, involving himself in every aspect of production. First of all in his casting choices, many of which Hitchcock was not happy with. Then, in his constant rewriting of the screenplay. He would watch the dailies every day, write new pages in the evening, and deliver them to the set in the morning. As a consequence, many days filming did not being until eleven or twelve. As Gregory Peck said of Selznick’s rewritten pages, Hitchcock would “see those blue pages in the morning and he would just retreat to his bungalow…in all fairness to Hitch, the dialogue was invariably worse not better.”
Then there was conflict over how the film was lit. Hitchcock wanted to create a movie that was rich in shadows, but Selznick was having none of it. Lee Garmes, the veteran cinematographer, was caught in a tug of war between Hitchcock and Selznick. Hitchcock would ask for more shadows, while Selznick wanted glamour shots, particularly for his newly-discovered star Alida Valli. He wanted close-ups and bright light on her face.
Selznick would dash off memos to his director, critical of the way the film was being shot. Selznick said:
There is no shading or attempt to photograph Jourdan interestingly as there was in the first few days, and if we’re not careful this will be true of Valli…We can’t go on photographing the walls and windows, making passport photos, without any modeling to the face, any lighting designed to give the woman interest and beauty and mystery, no study of her best angles and how to light and photograph them.
Describing Hitchcock’s work as filming “passport photos” is a particularly biting comment, which must not have sat well with the director.
Hitchcock also had some elaborate tracking shots planned, which Selznick ordered scrapped and shot conventionally. Finally, Selznick controlled the editing as well. Hitchcock turned in a nearly three-hour rough cut, from which Selznick trimmed almost an hour, including some of Hitchcock’s more interesting shots. Selznick settled on a preview version of the movie, but would ultimately cut an additional ten minutes. It is uncertain whether a print of this preview version is still in existence, but it would certainly be interesting to see some of the footage that Selznick cut out.
The Hitchcock touch? Despite this film ultimately being more of a Selznick film than a Hitchcock film, there are still several nice Hitchcock touches throughout. There is a very well-filmed scene between Gregory Peck and Louis Jourdan. The conversation has a confrontational air. Peck sees Jourdan not only as his adversary in the trial, but also a sexual adversary in relation to Mrs. Paradine. As they sit and face each other across a table, a lamp is suspended above their heads, with decorative crystals hanging from it.
As the scene becomes more intense Hitchcock cuts to a close-up, and now we see only the crystals, suspended almost like a jagged row of teeth above the men’s heads.
There is a scene in the courtroom which Hitchcock was particularly proud of, which involved Alida Valli sitting in the defense box while Louis Jourdan entered the courtroom and walked around the box, to the witness stand. It was done by shooting Jourdan first, walking through a 200-degree arc. Then Alida Valli was placed in front of a screen showing this footage, and sat on a stool that slowly turned. As Hitchcock said: “It was quite complicated, but it was very interesting to work that out.”
Finally, there is a trademark Hitchcock overhead shot, following Gregory Peck as he slowly leaves the courtroom for the last time, in defeat.
Performance: Gregory Peck is a great actor, but Hitchcock may have been right when he stated that Peck was not a convincing English lawyer. Alida Valli plays Mrs. Paradine as cold and distant. That is how the character was written in the book, and yet she is also supposed to possess an almost immeasurable allure, affecting every man she comes in contact with. This allure is missing from Valli’s performance, and the character of Mrs. Paradine suffers for it. Ann Todd, in the role of Mrs. Keane, also plays her part with a certain detachment. As Hitchcock said of her character: “She was too coldly written, I’m afraid.” And Louis Jourdan, with his charm and good looks, was not exactly what this role called for. These are certainly all good actors, but they were at odds with the material at hand. The really good performances in this movie are found in the smaller roles. Charles Laughton is perfectly cast as the lecherous Judge Horfield, and Ethel Barrymore is also wonderful in the role of his wife. Charles Coburn is solid, as always, in the role of Sir Simon Flaquer, and Joan Tetzel is a revelation in the role of his daughter, Judy. She has more vibrancy than all the other women in the movie combined.
Source material: This film is based upon the 1933 novel by Robert Hichens. The basic premise of the novel is the same as the movie, and it’s a good one. The novel is a decent read by today’s standards, although the courtroom scenes at the end are the most gripping part of the book. There are several differences between the novel and film. In the novel, Mrs. Paradine is found guilty, but she never actually confesses. Not only that, but the reader is never definitively told that she killed her husband. It is implied, but not explicitly stated. Also Mr. Paradine’s valet, called William Marsh in the book, does not commit suicide. At the end of the novel we find out in an aside that Keane has retired from the bar, and that Judge Horfield was shot, and has also retired. We are led to believe, through a fairly subtle clue, that Keane shot Horifield. Lady Horfield is also a more significant character in the novel.
Hitchcock themes: One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most pervasive themes is that of guilt, both real and perceived. Everyone in this movie is carrying some level of guilt, except perhaps the lecherous Judge Horfield, who feels no guilt for his actions. Mrs. Paradine doesn’t express any guilt for her husband’s death, but perhaps feels bad for the way Andre Latour is treated. Keane feels guilty because he is emotionally unfaithful to his wife. His wife feels guilty because she cannot stand back and let him try the case. Latour feels guilty because of his indiscretions with Mrs. Paradine.
There is an interesting comparison to be made between this film and Vertigo. Both films feature a man falling in love with an idealized version of a woman, a woman that does not really exist. And in both cases, the man in question blindly pursues this idealized woman to a tragic ending.
Academy Awards: Ethel Barrymore received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, for her brief but memorable role as Lady Horfield. She did not win. Some may be surprised that a role comprising only three minutes of screen time could be nominated for an Oscar. The print of this movie that was shown to the Academy for voting consideration was longer than the final theatrical cut, and included some more scenes of Barrymore’s character.
Recurring players: Gregory Peck had earlier starred in Spellbound. Charles Laughton had appeared in Jamaica Inn. The stalwart character actor Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor. In addition to this film, he was in Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. Patrick Aherne (police sergeant) would later have a small role in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Leonard Carey (courtroom stenographer) also had bit parts in Rebecca, Suspicion and Strangers on a Train. Elspeth Dudgeon had appeared in Foreign Correspondent. Lumsden Hare (courtroom attendant) had appeared in Rebecca and Suspicion. Phyllis Morris (Mrs. Carr) had a bit part in The 39 Steps. The great character actor John Williams has an uncredited role as Barrister Collins, Gregory Peck’s assistant. He is seen in several scenes, but has no dialogue. He would have plenty of dialogue in Dial M For Murder and To Catch a Thief.
Where’s Hitch? Alfred Hitchcock shows up just after the 38:00 mark, exiting the train station, and carrying what appears to be a cello case.
What Hitch said: Generally speaking, when Hitchcock considered one of his own films to be weak, he had little to say about it. But he actually had quite a lot to say about this movie, while recognizing its flaws:
Let’s go over some of the more apparent flaws of that picture. First of all, I don’t think that Gregory Peck can properly represent an English lawyer. I would have brought in Laurence Olivier…But the worst flaw in the casting was assigning Louis Jourdan to play the groom. After all, the story of The Paradine Case is about the degradation of a gentleman who becomes enamored of his client, a woman who is not only a murderess, but also a nymphomaniac. And that degradation reaches its climactic point when he’s forced to confront the heroine with one of her lovers, who is a groom…Unfortunately, Selznick had already signed up Alida Valli – he thought she was going to be another Bergman – and he also had Louis Jourdan under contract, so I had to use them, and this miscasting was very detrimental to the story. Aside from that, I myself was never too clear as to how the murder was committed, because it was complicated by people crossing from one room to another, up and down a corridor.
Definitive edition: Kino Lorber released a blu-ray edition in 2017, as part of their Studio Classics series. The print is good, not great. As a matter of fact it has a very grainy appearance in places, but it is still better than it has ever looked on a home video release. The blu-ray includes a commentary track by Bill Krohn and Stephen Rebello; two audio interviews featuring Hitchcock, one with Francois Truffaut and one with Peter Bogdanovich; a Lux Radio Theater radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotten; a brief interview with two of Gregory Peck’s children; theatrical trailer; and a restoration comparison.
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 Executionersfor 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.