Saturday, 18 August 2012

Cape Fear (1962)

Dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin 

In 1962 Gregory Peck played two memorable lawyers on screen. He won the Academy Award for his principled Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Earlier that year he appeared as another noble lawyerly paterfamilias, but one whose morals are increasingly troubled. This was Sam Bowden in Cape Fear.

Bowden is a different calibre of lawyer to Finch. Just looking at his grand house with its sprawling and well-kept grounds shows the viewer that he is much more successful than ‘30s small-town lawyer Atticus. Instead of two children he just has the one, Nancy (Lori Martin). He also still has a wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen). But he still strives to do the right thing. Why, eight years ago he even intervened to stop an “attack” – a rape – on a young woman. His testimony was enough to get the perpetrator jailed. 

But eight years later that criminal is out of jail and wants pay-back. Robert Mitchum portrays Max Cady as one of the nastiest characters ever committed to celluloid. He is a sadistic rapist – and kudos to writer James R. Webb for bringing him to the screen in an era when the word rape could not be uttered. Cape Fear pushed the limits of what was acceptable in the cinema. To be released in Britain around six minutes of cuts had to be made (now reinstated on the DVD I watched) and it still came out with an X rating. Cady wants vengeance on Bowden for the eight years he lost. He does not associate his imprisonment with his attempted rape; he blames it all on Bowden’s intervention. And so he seeks out Bowden. He is strong, vicious, amoral and – worryingly – smart. Eight years of studying law in gaol has taught him exactly far he can go in his war of nerves. He is careful not to overstep the mark. He lets Sam know he is in town. But he cannot be linked to the poisoning of the Bowden’s pet dog. He terrorises bad girl Diane (Barrie Chase) so that she refuses to testify after he rapes her. When Sam catches him eyeing 14-year-old Nancy he attacks Cady; Cady refuses to retaliate. And in fact Max does everything requested of him by the police – before bringing in his own lawyer to protest that he is being victimised. When the police can do no more Sam’s friend the Chief (Martin Balsam) suggests he turn to a private detective. When Charlie Sievers (a young Telly Savalas – with hair!) can do no more he suggests Sam hire some heavies to run Max out of town. Sam, desperate, finally resorts to this, but it backfires. In danger of losing his licence to practice law Sam has one last chance – to use his wife and daughter as bait to lure Cady out to their houseboat on the Cape Fear river. There he will attempt to ambush him. 

And he has to use his family as bait. It is his family that Cady targets in the hope of ruining Sam’s life – “I got something planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t nevah gonna forget. They ain’t nevah gonna forget it… and neither will you Counsellor. Nevah!” He continually makes comments about how sweet Peggy looks – and how young Nancy is developing just as well. In particular it is the young girl that he has eyes for. And what eyes! Mitchum has the heavy, lazy gaze of a predator. His entire carriage screams malevolence. No wonder Nancy runs away in terror when she spots him in the street. He has a human cunning, but no human decency. Time and again Cady is referred to as “a beast”, “an animal”; Diane tells him “you’re just an animal: coarse, lustful, barbaric” (this is actually a turn-on for her!). Sam says that he belongs in a cage. He is absolutely grotesque – but at the same time he is clever and has a sort of feral charisma. How else could he seduce Diane while being arrested? Above all he is confident, and confidence is attractive. He is confident in his own strength, he is confident in his power over the Bowdens, and he is confident that the law cannot touch him. As Bowden complains “Either we’ve got too many laws or not enough.” It really is Mitchum’s performance that lifts the story above the humdrum and turns it into something truly chilling. Classic moment? When he corners Peggy on the houseboat. In anger he suddenly grabs an egg and crushes it in his fist. This was entirely improvised and Bergen’s shock and revulsion were real. 

"Hey Atticus - I stole your hat!"

The final confrontation at Cape Fear is electrifying. I suppose we should know that Sam would win out against Max – it’s a film from 1962 from heaven’s sake, and Max is so evil and Sam is so, well, Gregory Peck, that anything else would have been unthinkable. But Cady certainly pushes it to the wire. To be honest, I think we have lost something with the move to colour films. Black and white work brilliantly in menacing night-time scenes like this. The  moonlight and the shadows of vegetation stripe Max’s half-naked body as he slips from the river and prowls into the undergrowth as lethal as a jungle beast. I find it hard to imagine how it would look in colour if I’m honest. 

Though I should know. While this was my first occasion to watch this original, I have previously seen a different version. In 1991 Martin Scorsese remade the film with Nick Nolte as Sam and Robert De Niro as Cady. In many ways the later version is superior. De Niro is a terrifying pumped-up steroidal Frankenstein’s monster. He is also mad, as becomes clear towards the end of the film. He is more of an obvious physical threat than Mitchum’s terrific shark-like circling of the Bowdens. Mitchum’s Cady is not mad; his danger comes from the fact that he is perfectly rational. At the same time Nolte’s Sam is less Dudley Do-Right. In the Scorsese version he was the lawyer defending Cady and he covered up some of the evidence in order to get his client sent down. It is implied that he is having an affair with a colleague. Sam is less scrupulous and his family is less perfect. Probably its main strength is the relationship between Cady and Sam’s daughter (now called Danielle). He infiltrates her life, and she responds to him. Mind you, she is played by Juliette Lewis! The climax is much more action-packed and ends in a death. Finally, Scorsese sets the film in North Carolina. Despite the name of the film (Cape Fear is a promontory and river in the south of NC) the bulk of the action in the original takes place in Georgia. Which I didn’t realise before I watched the film! 

What have I learnt about North Carolina?
Not as much as I would have hoped. The Scorsese remake lulled me into a false sense of security. In the 1991 version Sam Bowden practises law in New Essex, North Carolina. In the original he practices in Georgia. The only scenes set in North Carolina are those of the climax on the Bowden’s houseboat on the Cape Fear river. Frankly, the only link to North Carolina is that river – and the only reason that river is used instead of any other Georgian rivers (which would make more sense) is because it has a cool name. How could a police officer from Georgia be permitted to stand guard in North Carolina? 

But we learn that there is indeed a Cape Fear river, and that it is a recreation area. It is a maze of small islands and wild vegetation. The bird-life sounds almost tropical. 

Can we go there?
No filming took place in North Carolina at all. Filming did occur in Georgia, however – in Savannah (location of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Several of the historic plaques can be seen around town behind the action. In an odd case of art imitating life Robert Mitchum, as a young man, had in fact been charged with vagrancy (one of the charges the police attempt to throw at Cady) and sentenced to work on a chain gang. Quite understandably he was quite reluctant to revisit the town. As a result a large number of the scenes were shot back in California. The scenes on what is meant to be the Cape Fear River were hence actually filmed at Ladd’s Marina in Stockton. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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