25 June 2009

Cape Fear (1962)

Original Cape Fear Still Chilling
By Kristin Battestella

Many modern audiences and Robert DeNiro fans especially love to quote his maniacal ‘Come out, come out wherever you are!’ from the 1991 version of Cape Fear. Classic viewers, however, can still enjoy the 1962 fear fest starring old school men Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.

Lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) fears for his family’s safety after an ex con he helped put away returns to town. Max Cady (Mitchum) feigns innocence, claiming he has every right to be passing through. Sam’s wife Peggy Bowden (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), however, each have threatening encounters with Cady-including stalking Nancy at school and calling Peggy late at night. When the promiscuous Diana Taylor (Barrie Chase) refuses to press charges against Cady for beating her, the authorities are of little help to her or Sam. Before Cady can do worse to his family, Bowden decides to take matters into his own hands.

We’re familiar with the story-and not just because of the films or the source novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. Cape Fear dramatizes every family man’s fear. First, there’s the notion that a man’s action or inaction can bring something like this onto his family. Then we have all the naughty vibes of a criminal hunting down a man’s wife and daughter. Any husband or father can understand Bowden’s situation. Screenwriter James R. Webb (The Big Country, How The West Was Won, They Call Me Mister Tibbs) doesn’t present a tainted family man or promiscuous daughter like in the remake, but there’s enough sixties scandal to keep this Cape Fear juicy.

Cape FearHe’s tall, dark, and handsome, and good guy Gregory Peck is the ideal family man for Cape Fear. Among so many other heroic pictures (Spellbound, The Gunfighter, Roman Holiday I could go on…), we love familial Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird and The Yearling. We know he’ll stay on the right side of the law for as long as he can. Justice and family are the only things that matter to Sam Bowden, so when he takes on Cady himself, we know it’s serious. Peck may be taller than Mitchum, but can he be as ruthless as he needs to be in order to protect his family? The heated and tense conversations between Bowden and Cady keep Cape Fear saucy and interesting; yet there’s no doubt we’re rooting for Gregory Peck. We don’t question him or his performance, but he’s the good guy in a world that’s seemingly turned against him.

By contrast, Robert Mitchum has all the spooky vibes going for him in Cape Fear. Despite his handsome rugged old Hollywood style, Mitchum’s real life pot conviction and scandalous strip down here add to his underlining touch of menace. He shows his wet and deadly bare bulk, yowzah! Cady’s pursuing such a wholesome family, and that poor dog! Sure, we don’t have as much ambiguity and overt sexuality as in the 1991 remake, but Mitchum (Night of the Hunter, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The Longest Day, El Dorado) pushes the envelope of what you can see onscreen-and the allusions to what happens in the shadows are sometimes more frightening. Cady creepily reverses our notions of bad guys dressed in black with his daunting Panama hat and suave cigar. He talks the talk in attempting to show us how he’s been wronged, but we are always aware his slick is just too slick. Cady ‘looks fair and feels foul’, and Mitchum oozes every iota of it.

Lori Martin (National Velvet The TV Series, The Angry Breed) as Nancy looks young for fourteen-not a little girl, of course, but still a bit too prepubescent for big and scary Robert Mitchum. It’s an innate fear of ours to be preyed about by such a sexual predator. Martin plays her innocence and fear quite naturally and understandably. Likewise, Polly Bergen (War and Remembrance, Commander in Chief) as wife Peggy gets genuinely panicked for herself and her daughter’s safety. She’s the picture perfect Mrs. in the spirit of June Cleaver-complete with pearls. We’d like things to stay white gloved for her, but we know its going to get dirty. Her screams while Cady’s about are enough to make us squirm. Telly Savalas (Kojak) also has old school charm as Charles Sievers, the Private investigator hired by Bowden. Unfortunately, his hands are tied in the swift cat and mouse game Cady’s playing.

British director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) uses his cast to perfection and films them accordingly. Innocent wife Peggy and little Nancy always wear white or bright clothing-compared to dancer Barrie Chase’s (It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World) used and abused Diane Taylor in all black. The visual subtleties and timely music are very Hitchcock. The creepy black and white shadows mixed with long angles and moving camera shots also add to the noir suspense. Where the remake is all exceptional performances, this Cape Fear is much more about the craft of a scary picture. One could dare say this is the perfect horror film. There’s no blood and gore; it’s the real life menace that scares. A sunny day at the dock with Robert Mitchum in his panama hat is the most terrifying thing this side of Fred Krueger.

Fans of good old-fashioned black and white thrillers should already know and love Cape Fear. A two pack DVD featuring both film versions is now out of print, but a fully featured individual release of the original is fortunately available. Enjoy DeNiro and Jessica Lange and Nick Nolte’s version, too, but take a chance on this creepy old school classic. Study it, learn it, fear it, love it.

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