We hope our many readers on the Carolina coast are safe and well or, better yet, snug and cozy this weekend as Hurricane Florence batters the shoreline, and all residents within one mile of the Cape Fear River are ordered to evacuate. For most of us non-Carolingians, any mention on the Weather Channel of "Cape Fear" is as likely to evoke not the actual cape but a movie title (cf "Key Largo"). As I understand it, Cape Fear is the fifth oldest English place name in America, so christened by the petrified crew on Sir Richard Grenville's expedition of 1585. In the ranks of cape nomenclature, it's up there with Cape Wrath at the northern tip of Scotland, which admittedly is Old Norse for "turn hard left or you'll be sailing westward for weeks on end with nothing in sight till Newfoundland". Undoubtedly, Cape Wrath would have made a great sequel to Cape Fear. But, absent the greenlighting thereof, I thought for our Saturday movie date we'd revisit the fearful screen adaptation(s) of John D MacDonald's psychological thriller.
In fact, the 1957 novel is called The Executioners and features nary a mention of Cape Fear. The third act of the 1962 movie takes place on the Cape Fear River, although I'm not sure it couldn't have played out on any other body of water. Only in the 1991 remake is the river made integral, right from the watery wobble of the Universal Pictures logo as it dissolves into one of Saul Bass's last great title sequences, nothing but skewed font and light playing on disturbed water, in eerie synchronicity with Elmer Bernstein's re-scoring of Bernard Hermann's music from the original. The tale in all three iterations remains, in its essentials, the same: A violent rapist is released from a long spell in prison and with vengeance in mind heads straight for the home town of the lawyer who got him banged up, there to torment and terrorize a respectable man, his wife, and their child.
No one would attempt to argue that J Lee Thompson (1962) is a greater film director than Martin Scorsese (1991). Thompson, a journeyman English filmmaker who had a boffo hit with John Mills' stiff-upper-lipped Brit war flick Ice Cold in Alex, found himself the last-minute directorial replacement on what proved an even bigger hit, with David Niven, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn et al - The Guns of Navarone. A year after Navarone, Hollywood called and invited Thompson to step in yet again, when Alfred Hitchcock and Cape Fear parted company. Thompson had worked as dialogue coach on Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939), and wanted to maintain a Hitchcockian feel to the picture - hence Bernard Hermann's score and the black-&-white photography.
The opening approximates the master somewhat crudely: We see Robert Mitchum as Max Cady sauntering across to a small-town courthouse. He's in a Panama hat and smoking a cigar, and appears to have the seductive roguish charm of Mitchum in a more conventional role. But on the stairs up to the courtroom he passes a legal secretary and causes a folder to fall from her arms, and does not stop to help her pick it up. The charm is false: Max Cady is a cold, callous man. He is not a rogue but a rapist - although, in 1962, that word could not be used, nor the act too precisely delineated. Moments later, he is coolly threatening the lawyer who ruined his life; a scene or three later, he's poisoning the family dog.
By comparison with, say, the family relationships in Strangers on a Train, Thompson's Cape Fear plays a little like a rough treatment for a final script rather than the thing itself: Gregory Peck is so decent and stiff he might as well be a Gregory Peck body-double, Polly Bergen is "the wife", Lori Martin is "the kid"; their normality verges on insipidness. Freed from the constraints of 1962, Scorsese's version fleshes everything out: In the Mitchum part, Robert De Niro is not just an evil rapist but a man made that way because he was raised by snake-handling Pentecostalists who chug strychnine to facilitate religious ecstasy. In the Peck role, Nick Nolte is no longer such a solid citizen: he's a hack lawyer and a sleazy adulterer, so his missus (Jessica Lange) is sour and unhappy, and their teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis) is the usual slutty jailbait.
All of this is certainly more detailed, and may even be credible, but it's also rather tediously predictable and it makes the story somehow more pedestrian. There is one half-interesting idea, brilliantly conjured by Scorsese and his principals: when the daughter meets the stalker, she is not, as in 1962, terrified but turned on (De Niro is posing as her drama teacher) and, being Juliette Lewis, she returns the favor. And for a moment you think: What if the bad guy didn't beat and rape and kill his way to revenge but instead seduced the good guy's daughter away from him? The monster as son-in-law... In the more dysfunctional quartiers of northern New Hampshire, I've known three or four such real-life scenarios.
Ah, but that would be a different picture, and you'd need someone other than De Niro. If I'd been remaking Cape Fear in 1991, I'd have cast Jeff Bridges as Cady - because you want someone with the affect of Mitchum, someone appealing enough to win you, except he can't be bothered, because it's easier to beat the crap out of you and then move on to fresh meat. In 1962 Thompson and his screenwriter James R Webb told a primal tale: The bad guy is bad; the good guy is good; what more do you need? The biggest difference between the two versions is the daughter: Lori Martin, coming off two years in TV's "National Velvet", was on the brink of a stardom that never happened (she had a sad end, committing suicide just before her sixty-third birthday). In 1962, she was fifteen years old, short for her age but, as they used to say, well developed: she is, in essence, a child with breasts - and Mitchum covets her, explicitly and palpably: Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina with a minor. Nancy is an innocent: she fears Max Cady, but cannot comprehend the depths of his depravity. For all the freedom Scorsese had to swear and shag to his heart's content, Thompson wrings far more flesh-creeping menace from the constraints of 1962.
Six months after Cape Fear, Gregory Peck released the picture that would come to define him - To Kill a Mockingbird. Unless you chanced to see Cape Fear between spring and fall of 1962, you watch Peck's turn in the earlier film in the light of the latter: Here is Atticus Finch in a world in which the law avails him naught. He wants Mitchum's ex-con run out of town, but on what grounds? The guy hasn't done anything, except hover menacingly. He calls in favors: his buddy the police chief arrests Cady on vagrancy, but has to let him go. He tries bribery, but the monster is principled enough to want payback rather than pay. He hires three goons to beat him up, but Cady puts them in hospital, and they blab, and the small-town lawyer finds himself facing disbarment. It's like watching Saint Atticus corroding into just another hollow shyster.
From Mitchum's point of view, it's all been-there-done-that. Before Hollywood and stardom, he was a drifter; he'd been jailed for vagrancy and worked on chain gangs. Washing up in Long Beach, he was set upon by half-a-dozen sailors from the local base, and was on his way to whuppin' all six of 'em when his missus stepped in to break it up because he was enjoying himself too much. Unlike De Niro in Raging Bull et al, Mitchum didn't need to "prepare for the role" in Cape Fear because, aside from the rape and murder, he'd lived most of it. If you ever saw him interviewed when he was being "difficult", you'll know he regarded movie celebrity as a con - and he didn't find it difficult to imagine what con-men who don't make it in the movies might be reduced to.
When the cops first come for Cady, he's in the local nightclub: the music blares, the floor is crowded, but there's a girl at the bar and their eyes meet through the throng - two semi-obscured faces that nevertheless know exactly who they're looking at. She holds the glance just a fraction long, and he gives a minimalist half-swallow. It's nothing but everything. As the police lead him away, he passes her and asks, "Are you trying to pick me up?"
"Yes," she says. She's a couple of socio-economic notches above him, but he's Robert Mitchum, isn't he? When next we see them, they're in a car headed to her place. "You're rock bottom," she purrs, with breezy condescension. "It's a great comfort to a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower." In fact, she's sunk lower than she knows. When Telly Savalas (playing the private eye) finds her later that evening, she's bloody and battered, cringing on the floor beside her bed.
But the girl at the bar minded to go slumming is just the warm-up. "For eight years I dreamed about a chick with a voice like yours," Max Cady tells Polly Bergen as the lawyer's wife. And, when he gets wind that they're taking a break on the family houseboat up the Cape Fear River, he makes his plans. In the remake, De Niro gives a technically brilliant rendering of a contemporary movie sociopath, but Mitchum simply is. He spends the last third of the movie bare-chested, and, when he strips off to lower himself into the river and go feast on Peck and his women, it's raw and physical and monstrous to a degree far beyond his successor. Lori Martin is so tiny and childlike, struggling against a huge, shambling, hulking beast. But look at him as he tries to drown Peck and a policeman, and it's not much different: They used to call Mitchum "sleepy-eyed", but here they're both alert and utterly dead: the eyes of a man in whom everything has shriveled away except brute force and animal cunning. The scene with Polly Bergen was almost entirely improvised: When Mitchum rubs the eggs on her, she had no idea that was coming. In reaching to prevent her grabbing the kitchen knife, he cut open his hand, and the cameras kept rolling, so that she suddenly realized he's dripping blood and he's got it all over her. She put her back out, and it would take days to recover, but J Lee Thompson never called "Cut!"
I hadn't thought of Cape Fear in a long while, until the Harvey Weinstein story broke last year, and I read the grim accounts by various actresses of what happened when the hairy monster slipped out of his bathrobe, And for some reason it reminded me of Robert Mitchum and Polly Bergen: He's gloating and lusting, and she's thinking, "This doesn't seem like a movie scene anymore..." And, after all, so much of film-making is about making the aberrant and anti-social seem glamorous and romantic, isn't it? Say what you will about J Lee Thompson, but here, for once, it doesn't. Every so often I've wondered why on earth Mitchum in 1962 (as opposed to De Niro in 1991, as an acting-school exercise) would take such a role, but he sort of explains that, too, in what is surely the quintessential Mitchum line:
"Go ahead. I just don't give a damn."
~Steyn will be back later this evening to read the second part of this month's Tale for Our Time - John Buchan's Greenmantle.
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