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Cape Fear (1962)

In the days before the video age changed how we watched and discovered movies, Cape Fear is one of those titles that I came across on late night TV thanks to my constant deciphering of the weekly listings in search of movies featuring my favorite actors while growing up. High on that list then and now has always been Robert Mitchum. An actor I’ve featured on more than one occasion, here and here . Add in Gregory Peck and this was a movie I needed to catch on the late show. Upon my first viewing it instantly became a movie that was added to a growing list of titles that I crossed my fingers would be appearing on television the following week when I would scour the weekly publication known to one and all as TV Guide.

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So for me Cape Fear is one of those movies that I love to lay claim to as a title I had long loved before it seemed fashionable to do so. When of course the remake was presented to us from Martin Scorsese I hurried off on opening night to see it. I came away impressed and excited by the all new version with DeNiro laying siege to those around him. Thankfully Scorsese kept that great Bernard Herrmann score intact. Now that the years have moved on, I’m far less enthusiastic with the remake versus the original which still keeps me on the edge of my seat. Less is more may be the perfect saying when comparing the two films. Though I still like the remake it has for me turned into much more of a horror film with an over the top DeNiro versus the real tension and brooding magnetism that Mitchum brings to the screen for his take on Max Cady.

On to the film for those of you who have yet to take a journey on the Cape Fear River.

“Max Cady isn’t a man who makes idle threats.”

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Cape Fear at it’s core is not much different than a western. A man broods while in prison and upon release is heading back to kill the sheriff who sent him up the river. Sounds a bit like High Noon. In this case it’s an ex-con brilliantly essayed by Mitchum who has built up a distorted  passion to ruin the life of the lawyer who testified in a case against him for his beating and what we can assume, rape of a woman years prior to this film’s setting. Peck is what we would expect Peck to be. A fine upstanding citizen and righteous lawyer who is well respected by the people within his profession and most importantly by friend and local police chief, Martin Balsam.

Mitchum, now a free man after having paid his debt to society quickly becomes a threatening presence in Peck’s family life. Gregory rightly begins to fear for the safety of his family including an excellent turn by Polly Bergen as his wife and Lori Martin as his under aged daughter. The tension only increases as the family dog is poisoned, Mitchum is regularly rousted by Balsam to no avail and the failure of private eye Telly Savalas to secure another sexual assault charge against Mitchum when his latest victim flees town rather than stand up against Mitch’s towering evil persona.

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“You just put the law in my hands.”

Mitchum pulls ahead as he continually goads Peck in this horrific game of cat and mouse when he turns the tables on a gang of thugs hired by Peck to beat and run Mitchum’s ex-con out of town. Mitch isn’t in a hurry to claim what he believes is his righteous revenge. He fully intends to tear Peck apart professionally and personally. It’s the personal part that has Peck and Bergen terrified. They’ve become convinced that Mitchum fully intends to rape their young daughter.

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This is where our desensitized movie goers of today have to stop and think this through. It’s 1962 and this film all but blatantly makes Mitchum’s mission obvious. A time when families were sitting at home watching Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show on television and an innocence was still prevalent in what was becoming a changing times in movie theaters across the continent.

“I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t never gonna forget. They ain’t never gonna forget it… and neither will you, Counselor! Never! “

Time to stop the plot points just in case you’ve yet to see this terrifying film. Terrifying due to the performances of Mitchum and Bergen. Mitch was seldom better though his Max Cady is often compared to his role as the murderous preacher in Night of the Hunter. I think time has elevated this film to a close second when comparing Mitch in both films though I’ll admit to preferring him here. Miss Bergen proves to be a major factor in just why this film is so gripping. Perhaps the subject material gave her all she needed but the look in her eyes when she comes to grips with what Mitchum is after surely was enough to cause mothers of the day to tremble in the darkened theaters they paid their money to enter. Bergen’s scene near the climax of the film with Mitchum’s brutal rapist is the film’s highlight.

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Cape Fear was actually put together by Peck who brought over his Guns of Navarone director, J. Lee Thompson to handle duties here as well behind the camera. Peck and J. Lee would reunite twice more as the decade came to a close with MacKenna’s Gold and The Chairman. According to the featurette on the blu ray release of the film, the always stoic Peck knew going in that Mitch was going to have the flashier role and he was of course correct. Peck would get the last laugh at Oscar time when he was awarded the statuette for his 1962 performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. Sadly Mitchum was once again overlooked by the Academy in this career role. For those that like to point out Mitchum always seems to be on autopilot and giving a sleepy eyed performance, look again at his Max Cady. It’s a fully formed performance without a misstep along the way.

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Back to the remake. In what seems to be a right of passage, Peck and Mitchum would make cameo appearances in the Scorsese film and admirably with a twist that I liked. Each had gone over to the other side.

I’d find it a bit surprising if you haven’t seen this one but, if you haven’t then get at it. Of course if you have, there’s nothing wrong with rediscovering it one more time.

9 Comments »

  1. I’ve seen it, but it’s been years and years ago. A few months back I found the DVD for a couple bucks at a thrift shop and picked it up, so hopefully a viewing will be happening soon, and a review coming soon thereafter. Never saw the remake, and I’m not sure if I really want to.

  2. Good write up of a film I feel is vastly superior to the remake, the latter becoming too much of a cartoon and losing much of the tale’s power in the process. Mitchum is brutal and malevolent, believably so, much more so than De Niro, who I never really bought into this role.

    • That’s what I came to realize upon a second viewing of the remake. Initially I was impressed and caught up with the Scorsese/DeNiro factor and the appearance of Peck, Mitch and Balsam. Upon reflection and the second go around, you come to realize it has a large bag of tricks including DeNiro going over the top. Much as I like him less is more when comparing the two films and performances by Mitch and DeNiro.

  3. Peck has always struck me as wooden – not merely restrained. There is in fact a deadness to him. He appeared to wake up occasionally in: ‘Mirage’ (an excellent film), especially in his scenes with Diane Baker, who propped him up. There is nevertheless, a sanctimonious quality to the man, which I daresay was probably a part of his actual character. It is difficult to understand what made him a star.

    • I can see how someone sees Peck as a wooden actor. I also think that he’s a case of being sold as a product like many stars were and this is what he fell in to. I keep meaning to revisit Mirage. Good reminder.

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