CAPE FEAR (1962): “Go ahead. I just don’t give a damn.”

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.

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SABOTEUR (1942) : “Just a guy from Glendale.”

SABOTEUR (1942)  – Universal Studios  – Rating:  ★★★½

B&W – 108 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Robert Cummings (Barry Kane), Priscilla Lane (Patricia Martin), Otto Kruger (Charles Tobin), Alan Baxter (Mr. Freeman), Norman Lloyd (Fry),  Alma Kruger (Mrs. Sutton), Vaughan Glaser (Phillip Martin).

Produced by Frank Lloyd & Jack H. Skirball

Written by Joan Harrison & Peter Viertel & Dorothy Parker

Director of Photography:  Joseph A. Valentine

Film Editing:  Otto Ludwig

Art Director:   Robert Boyle

Poor Barry Kane, hard-working American patriot, doing his part to support the war effort in a Los Angeles airplane factory.  When a fire erupts in the factory, he is one of the first on the scene, and through the machinations of a suspicious man named Fry,  Barry’s good friend dies in the fire, and Barry himself is suspected of sabotage.  Armed with only one small clue, Fry’s name and an address briefly glimpsed on an envelope, Barry must track down the real saboteurs while staying one step ahead of the police.  This is Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite motif, which he used many times:  the innocent man, falsely accused.

The address leads Barry to a California ranch run by a Charles Tobin, who is the mastermind of the saboteurs.  Charming and urbane, he is the quintessential Hitchcock villain,  a man who can calmly play with his granddaughter while plotting the deaths of innocent people.  Barry has his first run-in with the police at the ranch, and after escaping, acquiring a  pair of handcuffs for his troubles,  he winds up at the woodland house of a kind old blind man.  Soon the blind man’s niece arrives and is instructed to drive Barry to the blacksmith to have the handcuffs removed.

The movie continues as a series of set pieces, and truly the individual strength of many of the pieces is greater than the strength of the movie as a whole.  Barry and Patricia move from West to East, from Los Angeles to New York, and Patricia’s feelings about Barry move from doubt to trust, while the nest of saboteurs grows and the pieces begin to fit together.

Eventually the couple find themselves in a mansion in New York City, surrounded by socialites at a charity event being hosted by the saboteurs.  With all the exits guarded, they are literally trapped in a crowded room.  This is a familiar theme in the works of Hitchcock; oftentimes his protagonists feel alone precisely when they are surrounded by people.

Our couple is separated and imprisoned separately at this point, both using ingenuity (rather implausible in one case) to earn their freedom.  Barry Kane finally runs into his nemesis Fry, the man behind the fire at the airplane factory, and a chase ends atop the Statue of Liberty, with Fry literally hanging by a thread from liberty’s torch.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film; the action maintains a steady pace as the setting  moves from one location to another.   The performances of the leads are a bit uneven.   There is a reason that Hitchcock loved to cast stars in his leading roles:  they were generally very good at what they did, and they had an easy time holding the audience’s attention.  Neither Robert Cummings nor Priscilla Lane was an A-list actor,  and they were both known for more lighthearted material.  Their performances are not bad, but their golly-gee style of delivering dialogue, while very much in vogue in the 40’s, seems somewhat dated today.  Contrast this with the performance of Otto Kruger, the mastermind of the saboteurs, whose  characterization seems very real even by today’s standards.

It is the very lack of star power that has kept this film from getting greater recognition.  It is a hidden Hitchcock gem,  well worth viewing for casual fans, and a deeper exploration by Hitchcock scholars.

Writing:   The screenplay is of paramount importance in any discussion of this movie, which came out at a time when many of America’s great writers were trying their hand at penning a Hollywood screenplay or treatment.  Everyone from Raymond Chandler to William Faulkner to Aldous Huxley gave it a try.  And Hitchcock himself collaborated with Robert Benchley, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, and in the case of this film Dorothy Parker.

This screenplay, along with Thornton Wilder’s for Shadow of a Doubt, are the most literary of all Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.  Dorothy Parker’s influence can be felt throughout this screenplay.   First of all in the sequence with the blind man, which clearly was inspired  by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and is written and acted superbly.  Such warm, tender and likeable characters are seldom found in a suspense film.  There is also a fine sequence that takes place in a circus caravan, in a bus filled with circus freaks.  Our starring couple find themselves surrounded by Siamese twins, a bearded lady and several other strange characters, and the dialogue manages to combine warmth, comedy and suspense, all wrapped in a World War II allegory.   (More about the war in a moment.)  Later the film features one of the most head-scratchingly bizarre monologues in the entire Hitchcock canon, which is almost surely Dorothy Parker’s writing.  This is the moment when the saboteur Mr. Freeman, apropos of nothing, states to Barry Kane that he wishes his boy children were girls, and proceeds to describe how as a child, he had long golden locks that people would stop to gaze at!  A very creepy moment indeed.

There are even more subtle moments that show Parker’s fine touch, such as the billboards Barry Kane passes in his travels, each one with a message that has a deeper significance to him:  “You’re being followed”, “She’ll never let you down”, and “the final tribute.”  There is also a scene that takes place in the library of the Sutton mansion, in which the visible book titles are carefully chosen;  beyond the ones pointed out by Barry Kane (Escape), and Charles Tobin (Death of a Nobody), some of the other visible titles  could relate to the plot of the movie.     There is also a great self-referential moment in the screenplay.  When Barry and Pat are dancing in the ballroom, Pat says that she wishes she had met him somewhere else, like the North Pole, and Barry replies “We might end up there yet, too”, a nod to the continually changing locations in the film. And finally, the sequence in Radio City Music Hall features a film within a film, which has dialogue that works for both the onscreen and off-screen characters in the theater.

Propaganda:   This film was released in 1942, and its subject matter was used as a form of propaganda to arouse American sympathies for the European cause against the Nazis.  There are two monologues in particular that are being addressed directly to the movie-going public.  Hitchcock had done the same thing  in his earlier film Foreign Correspondent.

Guilty as charged:  The theme of guilt and innocence, both real and perceived, factors heavily in this movie as it does in almost all Hitchcock movies.  When Barry Kane is hitching a ride with the truck driver, he is fleeing from a crime that he did not commit.  And yet he does feel a level of guilt for his friend’s death.  After all, he had the fire extinguisher in his hands, before he passed it off to Ken..  The rattling fire extinguisher inside the truck cab serves as a reminder.  And the truck driver narrates a story where a fellow driver used an extinguisher to save his friend’s life, saying that if he didn’t have a fire extinguisher he would have seen his friend fried right before his eyes.  Which is of course exactly what Barry Kane did observe.  And the use of the word “fries” serves a double purpose as it reminds Barry Kane of Frank Fry, the real culprit.

Keystone cops:  It’s worth pointing out that the police in almost all  Hitchcock films are bunglers bordering on incompetence, who generally do arrive just in time to arrest the villain; but the villain is often caught in spite of them, not because of them.  This film is no exception, although in this case the police have no plausible evidence to believe Barry Kane’s story of innocence until very late in the film.

Where’s Hitch?   Alfred Hitchcock’s original cameo in this movie was rejected by the censors.  It featured him walking down the street with a young lady, talking to her in sign language.  After a couple of seconds, the young lady looks indignantly at him and slaps him on the face.  This was considered a misrepresentation of deaf people, and was cut, the footage long since lost.  Quite a pity,  because as a result of this Hitchcock just threw in another cameo, almost as an afterthought.  It occurs at about 1:04:33, with Hitch as a patron in front of the Cut Rate Drug store.  It is one of the least noticeable and most forgettable of all Hitchcock cameos.

 

Recurring players:  Robert Cummings would also appear as Grace Kelly’s love interest  in Dial M for MurderIan Wolfe, who played Robert the Butler, played a very similar character in Foreign Correspondent.   Charles Halton (the uncredited second sheriff) and Emory Parnell (the husband in the film within a film) also appeared in Foreign Correspondent  and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Vaughan Glaser (the charming blind man) appears in one scene in Shadow of a Doubt, in a non-speaking and uncredited role.  Murray Alper (the truck driver) has very small uncredited parts in Strangers on a Train and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Frances Carson also appears in Foreign Correspondent and Shadow of a Doubt.  Al Bridge and Charles Sherlock also appear in Strangers on a Train.  Dale Van Sickel and Harry Strang were also in North by Northwest Ralph Brooks, Ralph Dunn, James Flavin, Jack Gardner and Sayre Dearing were also extras in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Art Gilmore, the voice of the radio broadcaster, also lent his voice to Rear Window and the trailer of To Catch a Thief Alexander Lockwood was also in North by Northwest and Family Plot.  Jeffrey Sayre is in Notorious, Vertigo and North by Northwest.   Sam Harris was an extra in Foreign Correspondent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder Henry Norton and George Offerman, Jr. were also in Foreign Correspondent Frank Marlowe was also in Notorious and North by Northwest.  And Norman Lloyd would later play the psychiatric patient Garmes in Spellbound.

Hitchcock moments:  Hitchcock was a master technician,  and most of his films contain scenes that are memorable for the groundbreaking storytelling techniques employed.  In this film the standout scene is the climax atop the Statue of Liberty.  This scene employs live action shots, small scale reproduction, matte painting, and black screen (the b&w precursor to today’s green screen), all put together in a way that holds up very well after nearly 70 years.

What Hitch said:   In the Truffaut  interviews, Hitchcock spoke of his displeasure with the leading actors in this film, with the exception of Norman Lloyd as Fry.  His final analysis is that “…the script lacks discipline.  I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay…I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting.”  – Truffaut – Hitchcock, p. 151, 1983.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu-ray release (which can be purchased as a stand-alone or as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set), is far and away the best quality edition of this movie on the market.   For a movie that is over 70 years old, in standard format, the picture quality is astonishing.  There is amazing clarity and depth of focus, so it is definitely worth an upgrade if you own the DVD.   The sound is 2-channel mono, and sounds as good as it ever has for home video.  Extras include a 35 minute making-of documentary, which features interviews with Norman Lloyd and production designer Robert Boyle.  Also included are storyboards, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.