Tag Archive: J. Lee Thompson


capefear2CAPE 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.

Mitchum looking through a fence, part of director Thompson’s use of a “cage” motif.

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.

Mitchum, Kruschen, Balsam, Peck: four great actors at the peak of their craft.

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.

JAMAICA INN (1939) – Mayflower Pictures – Rating: ★★

Black and White – 99 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Yellan), Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne), Marie Ney (Aunt Patience Merlyn), Horace Hodges (Chadwick), Emlyn Williams (Harry the Pedlar).

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Produced by Erich Pommer and Charles Laughton

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling, Sr.

Film Editing by Robert Hamer

Written by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, additional dialogue J.B. Priestly, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier

Original Music by Eric Fenby

Dialogue Coach:  J. Lee Thompson

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In the summer of 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was in the United States,courting Hollywood in the hope of signing a contract.  Hitchcock had been thinking about a move to the States for a few years;  now, riding the success of The Lady Vanishes, he was a hot commodity.  He finally signed with David O. Selznick in July.  His contract would not take effect until spring of 1939, which meant he had time to make one final film in England before making the move to America.  That final British film would be Jamaica Inn.  

Hitchcock had very little interest in the movie;  his mind was already on Hollywood and Selznick.  He directed it essentially as a favor to star Charles Laughton.  Over the course of his life Hitchcock was very dismissive of the movie, and it has a bad reputation in the Hitchcock canon.   Many contemporary reviews refer to it as one of the worst movies Hitchcock ever made.   Perhaps it is time for a reevaluation of this movie, particularly in light of the newly restored version released by Cohen Films in conjunction with the BFI.

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Maureen O’Hara as Mary Yellan (center) greets her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) as Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks) looks on.

As a first-time viewer of Jamaica Inn, I was surprised to discover that it is not nearly as bad as its reputation.  It does not have the feel of a Hitchcock movie at all;  anyone who subscribes to the auteur theory of film making may have a hard time seeing Hitchcock’s direct influence on this movie.  But he certainly did leave small touches here and there.  It is also not a traditional Hitchcock suspense movie;  it is at times over-the-top and downright bizarre.  But it mixes tone nicely, and never ceases to entertain.

The plot centers around Mary Yellan (played by a young Maureen O’Hara), a girl from Ireland who has travelled to England to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn (Marie Ney and Leslie Banks).  Her uncle is the proprietor of the Jamaica Inn, which is a front for a smuggling operation.  Her uncle runs a crew of ship wreckers; men who intentionally ground ships, kill the sailors and steal the cargo.  Early in the film Mary befriends Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the local magistrate, played by Charles Laughton in his usual scene-chewing fashion.  What Mary does not realize (but the audience does) is that Laughton’s character is the real mastermind behind the shipwrecking crew.   Mary also does not realize that Jem (played by Robert Newton), a member of the gang who she rescues from a hanging, is an undercover police officer, sent to infiltrate the gang to gather evidence.  So in typical Hitchcock fashion, the audience has significant information that the protagonist lacks.

Mary and Jem escape from Jamaica Inn, only to be trapped in a cave by the rather odd members of the wrecking crew.  Eventually they will escape, only to unwittingly place themselves in more danger, as they go to Sir Humphrey’s estate, asking for assistance.

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One of the few true “Hitchcockian” shots in the movie, as the ragtag members of the gang gaze down on the protagonists.

Sir Humphrey, as played by Laughton, is an oddball character from the beginning, but it appears that he is overtaken by madness as the story progresses.   By the time that Mary Yellan knows the true nature of all the characters in the story, she is caught in the clutches of Sir Humphrey, who attempts to flee with her aboard a parting ship.  In the end Sir Humphrey will meet his downfall, quite literally, in a closing sequence that is trademark Hitchcock.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier.  Hitchcock adapted three of his movies from Du Maurier stories (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds).  Of the three, only Rebecca remained true to the source material.  The novel Jamaica Inn is a gothic novel with a suspenseful build to a surprise ending.  The action takes place over several months, unlike the movie, which is condensed into a couple of days.  In the novel, the mastermind of the gang is actually a local vicar, named Francis Davy.  The movie could not employ a vicar as the antagonist, because film censors would not permit a priest to be a bad guy.  In the novel, the character of Jem is actually not an undercover policeman, but is the brother of Uncle Joss Merlyn.  The screenplay does a very good job of condensing action and characters, and keeping the pace moving along at a nice clip.  In the novel, the reader does not learn the true nature of the vicar until the last few pages.  In the movie, we learn very early on that Charles Laughton is the mastermind of the wreckers.  Alfred Hitchcock explains why this change was necessary:

“The problem there was…one would have to have a very important actor to play this character…The question was, how could one possibly have an important actor playing in an apparently unimportant part in the first two-thirds, when the characters are talking about a mysterious and influential figure?  Naturally, then, the story had to be changed…We had to let the audience in on the secret about that figure and change the whole middle of the story, so that you saw this figure behind the scenes and how he manipulates the wreckers.  We had to invent new situations.”

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An image from a fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara sneaking behind the wreckers.

Hitchcock touches:  As previously mentioned, there are few genuine “Hitchcock” moments in this film.   Because Charles Laughton was both producer and lead actor, Hitchcock was often at his whim.  Alfred Hitchcock may have been content to shoot two or three takes of a scene for instance, but if Laughton wanted ten takes, or fifteen, Hitchcock had to acquiesce.  Even if Hitchcock was making a by-the-numbers movie to please his producer/actor, he still managed to leave his imprint on a few scenes.  The opening sequence, showing the wreckers leading a ship onto the rocks, then plundering it, is a fantastic sequence;  a couple of the ship shots are clearly models, but regardless the sequence holds up well today.   A sequence that takes place in a cave by the sea has some nice Hitchcock touches.  There is one fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara as Mary, sneaking among the rocks behind the wreckers, which cuts to a close-up of several of the wreckers peering over the rocks.  This shot is pure Hitchcock, leaving no doubt as to who directed it.  And finally, the last sequence of the film, which also takes place on a ship, finds Charles Laughton leaping to his death from the top of the main mast.  This sequence is very well put together.  Hitchcock would later end several of his movies in this way, with a major character falling to their death  (Saboteur, Vertigo, North by Northwest).  Another Hitchcock touch is the absence of a musical score.  There is original music for the opening and closing credits, but no music during the actual movie.  This is the first of three films which would have no music (Lifeboat, The Birds).

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Basil Radford provides the film’s biggest laugh.

A Hitchcock comedy?  I guess it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a comedy, but for a movie that involves ship wreckers, smugglers and murderers, there are a lot of genuine laughs;  some intentional, some not.   Laughton’s character is bizarre from the opening sequence, in which he leads a horse into the dining room.  The way Laughton is always yelling for his butler “Chadwick!” also supplies some humor.  The last shot of the movie, after Laughton has fallen to his death, is a shot of Horace Hodges as Chadwick, who still hears Laughton’s cries of “Chadwick” echoing in his mind.  This final shot is both genuinely wistful and slightly comic, a pure Hitchcock moment, and indicative of the way the entire movie mixes tone.  The members of the wrecking crew also add some humor to the movie.  And Basil Radford, appearing in his third movie for Alfred Hitchcock, makes the most of his limited screen time by providing some genuine laughs.

Performance:  The title sequence of this movie proclaims “Introducing Maureen O’Hara”.   This was not her first movie, but was her first leading role, and her first under the exclusive five-year contract she signed with Charles Laughton.  Maureen is charming and convincing in her role.   Some feel that Laughton’s performance is way over the top, but his character is supposed to be going mad, so while he might walk the line, I think he pulls it off.   Leslie Banks is wonderful as Joss Merlyn;  he is almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played the father in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Many of the actors in the smaller supporting roles are great.  Hitchcock used many of his favorite character actors in this movie, perhaps because he was leaving for America and didn’t know if he would have the chance to work with them again.

Recurring players:  Charles Laughton would later appear in The Paradine Case.  Frederick Piper had small parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and Young and Innocent.  Hitchcock favorite Clare Greet had appeared in The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Sabotage.  George Curzon had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent.  The great Basil Radford was also in Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes.   Leslie Banks had starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  Wylie Watson had played Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps.  Robert Adair would later have a bit part in Stage Fright.  Marie Ault had appeared in The Lodger.  William Fazan also had bit parts in Murder! and Young and Innocent.   Hitchcock regular John Longden had appeared in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, and Young and Innocent.  Aubrey Mather was also in Sabotage and Suspicion.

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Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses. She would die shortly after filming was complete.

Hitchcock legacy:  Robert Hamer, the editor of this movie, would become a popular British director in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He made his most memorable films at Ealing Studios, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guiness.  J. Lee Thompson, the dialogue coach on this film, would become a very successful director, making many well-known movies, including The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear.  

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t!  Alfred Hitchcock had made cameos in several movies by this point, and he would make one in every subsequent movie, but he chose not to in Jamaica Inn.  Perhaps this is an indication of how little regard Hitchcock had for this movie, that he chose not to appear in it.

What Hitch said:  Despite the fact that this film was a huge hit, grossing over $3 million in 1939, Hitchcock never had a kind word to say about it.  He said “It was completely absurd…it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace.  Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed.  Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.”   Hitchcock also said of his leading man “You can’t direct a Laughton picture.  The best you can hope for is to referee”, and “He wasn’t really a professional film man.”  Harsh words, indeed.

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Definitive edition:  This movie has languished in the public domain for a long time, the result being several DVD releases of varying poor quality, some with almost unintelligible dialogue, and some even missing ten minutes of footage, which is integral to the plot!  There is only one version of this movie that you should see, and that is the brand new blu ray from Cohen films.  Their print, which is a full restoration released in conjunction with the BFI, is breathtaking.  The picture quality is startlingly good, the audio track is solid, and most importantly, the footage missing from many earlier prints has been restored.   Perhaps the excellent quality of this blu ray will help to give this movie a new life.  While it is not a great film, and not quintessential Hitchcock, it is certainly a well-constructed and entertaining film.  The blu ray includes a very informative (without being dry) commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold,  a 13-minute video essay featuring Donald Spoto, and a 2014 re-release trailer.

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