Friday, July 11

Good 60s Films: Cape Fear

1962 Drama
From Universal
Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Gregory Peck
Robert Mitchum
Polly Bergen
Lori Martin
Martin Balsam
Jack Kruschen
Telly Savalas
Barrie Chase

Never mind those stalker movies where six nymphettes are in a wooded cabin and one by one at midnight, each night, they are murdered, nitwits all, until we're down to the last girl and mercifully the end of the movie.  Here is a stalker movie of the first order, for grownups, where the story is plausible, the main characters are fleshed out and starring two of Hollywood's giants.  For this type of film, I'm not sure one could ask for more.

Gregory Peck was still in the middle of making The Guns of Navarone when he came across a book called The Executioners which he thought would make a fine movie.  His production company would make it.  He would hire J. Lee Thompson as director who, although he was largely unknown in the U.S., was steering Navarone.

In the story of a southern attorney (good practice for the actor's upcoming role in To Kill a Mockingbird) who is harassed by an ex-con he helped put behind bars, Peck would hand the more colorful role to Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum would add his company to the producing credits and the movie would get off the ground.

The film opens with Mitchum in rumpled white clothing and Panama hat walking through Forsythe Park in Savannah (although the city's name is never mentioned).  He seems determined as he makes his way to the courthouse.  On the stairs a woman passes him as she drops a book from the several she's trying to hold on to and he makes no motion to help.  We know we're not going to like him.

He walks into the courtroom as attorney Peck is pleading his case.  Mitchum's face is evil incarnate, his hatred for the man burns in his soul.  Eight years, four months and 13 days earlier he went to prison for molesting a woman and Peck saw it and was instrumental in putting the bad man away.  Time for revenge.

An aspect of the story I loved is that one never doubted what was coming because Mitchum's character announced his intentions... he would hurt the attorney where it meant the most... his wife and early-teen daughter.  The fun and the chills come from watching Mitchum do his thing.

The family dog is poisoned. The girl is leered at as she cleans the family boat and is menaced as she leaves school. The wife gets a frightening phone call and as much as anything, wherever the family goes, he seems to be there.  On the other hand, the attorney has the police make the con's life pretty miserable as well... getting him evicted from his various places to stay, to general harassment to having him beaten up.  The attorney sees no end in sight unless he can turn the tables.

He pretends to leave town (knowing rightly that he'll be watched) while he stashes the wife and daughter on a pair on houseboats on the Cape Fear River.  You know, there's good news and bad news about remote locations.  On the good side, it's so remote the bad guy may never find you.  On the bad side, if he does find you, it's so remote no one will come to your rescue. 

The plan is to lure Mitchum to the remote location by having him follow a private detective who has actually been tailing Mitchum but now those tables get turned and Mitchum trails the detective.  In the meantime, the wife and daughter are set up as sacrificial lambs with Peck and a cohort hiding outside in the swampy darkness.  What could go wrong?

Mitchum kills the cohort and unties the boat with just the wife on it and climbs aboard as it floats away.  Peck sees the boat get further and further away from him but before he can get to it, Mitchum gets to Polly Bergen.  It's a chilling scene.  The actress registers the right amount of facial terror as Mitchum, shirtless, wet and sadistic, pulls her to him and cracks an egg over her upper bare chest (she's in a sun dress).  And I get my favorite scene of the movie.  Damn, it was creepy.

As Peck arrives, he discovers Mitchum has fled and knows he's on his way to the daughter.  Looking as lascivious as he knows how to(and he knows how to), Mitchum stakes her out on the opposite end of a pingpong table from her and then pushes it til she runs and hides in a corner.  He carries her off the houseboat and as he does, he is met by Peck and they engage in one of filmdom's great standoffs, a slam-bam of a finale.

James Webb fashioned a tight thriller out of the original work.  It all plays out beautifully with hardly a false note.  Just as impressive and so important to all that we see is the wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann.  There is the tense and haunting beat to the town scenes and the frightening screeches in the swamps.

Director Thompson, who once worked with Hitchcock, admits that he thought of the portly director in nearly every scene he shot and I think it shows.  The film almost feels like an homage to Hitchcock.  It certainly stands as a great thriller of its day.

If you're a regular reader here, then I don't need to tell you Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck are two of my alltime favorite actors.  Peck plays a stalwart hero like few others before or since.  One is lifted and feels safe when one hears his counsel.  If he says it's going to be alright, it's going to be alright.  His strong voice, stoic manner and obvious intelligence is what he shows to his adversary.

Oh my, what an adversary.  Always one of Hollywood's most under-rated actors, this is Mitchum's best role ever.  This man was one scary mutha when he wanted to be.  And he rarely did villain parts... his stable is full of scores of good-guy roles.  But he stepped it up in 1955 with his murderous preacher in The Night of the Hunter and did so again here.  His face becomes a mosaic for madness and his big, sweaty body could so easily crush his prey.  He seems to know no boundaries.  It's perhaps interesting to note that in both films, he menaced children.

Also interesting is that Mitchum was not always in the best mood while filming this one.  For one thing, as a teenager his punishment for some crime was working on a road gang in Savannah and it did not cheer him to be back.  He was often a little surly on film sets anyway and this role likely did little to improve his disposition.

Polly Bergen who was never much of an actress, certainly not on par with her being a singer, had an acting resurgence in the first half of the 1960s and this was her finest hour.  A young Elizabeth Taylor lookalike, Lori Martin (who played Taylor's Velvet Brown in TV's National Velvet), acquitted herself quite nicely as the spooked child.  All the supporting roles were also on the mark.

In 1991 Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear with Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange.  It was an homage to the original and not nearly as good.

You haven't heard the last of Peck or Mitchum for my 60s tribute.  But Cape Fear is a darned good place to start.  Here's a reminder:

A sweet 1962 film in Italy

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