Cape Fear: Gregory Peck battles Robert Mitchum in this gripping psychological thriller

Director J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear(1962), starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, is a gripping post-noir Psycho thriller in which Mitchum, playing vicious Psychopath Max Cady, gave, perhaps, the greatest performance of his career.

An upright lawyer’s life becomes a nightmare when a sadistic ex-con he helped send to prison returns seeking revenge. No simple hooligan, Max Cady cleverly perverts the law to protect himself even as he stalks and terrorizes the attorney and his young family.”

This was in nutshell the theme of John D. Mac-Donald’s novel The Executioners. Star Gregory Peck found the theme inspiring enough to purchase the rights to the novel, and set it up as the his first home production. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had just been released and was a sensational success, and the market was hungry for Psycho thrillers. The film has a lot of Hitchcock’s influences ; like the creepy Bernard Hermann score and the menacing Black&White photography. Peck was making Guns of Navarone at the time with British director J. Lee Thompson and the star and director was getting along really well, even though it was a tough shoot of a big film. Peck was impressed by Thompson’s talent, and he offered The Executioners, now re-titled for the film as Cape Fear, to Thompson. In the novel, Cady was a soldier court-martialed and convicted on then Lieutenant Bowden’s testimony for the brutal rape of a 14-year-old girl. It had to be changed for the film as the censors stepped in, banned the use of the word “rape”, and stated that depicting Cady as a soldier reflected adversely on U.S. military personnel. So Bowden’s character was turned into a lawyer. Thompson read it, liked it and decided to do the film. It was going to be his first Hollywood film (Navarone was set up as a British production). Since it was conceived to be a low budget thriller under Peck’s home production, they were looking to cast a ‘character actor’ for the part of Max Cady; someone like Telly Savalas, who screen-tested for the part. But then, they thought that the film would work better if a star of equal magnitude as Peck would play Cady. There was only one choice for the role: Robert Mitchum. But Mitchum was not interested, and in the end, both Peck and Thompson somehow seduced Mitchum into saying ‘yes’ to the role; by sending him a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of Bourbon, which impressed Mitchum enough to call up Peck and agree to do the role. His exact words were:”Ok, I’ve drunk your bourbon. I’m drunk. I’ll do it.” One couldn’t have asked for a more perfect casting. The contrast between the characters of Cady and lawyer Sam Bowden was mirrored somewhat by the personalities of the two stars. Peck was a straight arrow, took the job of acting seriously, was thorough, analytical. Mitchum liked to make a show of being off the cuff, mocked seriousness. Mitchum even took to taunting his co-star on the sets,pretty much in the mode of Cady. Before he became a star, Mitchum was a drifter; he’d been jailed for vagrancy and worked on chain gangs; once in Savannah, which was fixed as the location for Cape Fear’s shooting. Mitchum hated being there, and kept a hostile attitude towards the populace during the time of the shooting. All this to say that Mitchum had no difficulty in getting into the skin of Max Cady’s character. He didn’t have to ‘prepare’ for the role ,like someone like Robert De Niro had to(who played the character in it’s 1991 remake) Mitchum had already played a sadistic psychopath in Charles Laughton’s cult noir classic The Night of the Hunter, and Max Cady looked cut from the same cloth. It’s a testament to his talent, that in the film, the 6 foot 1 inch Mitchum seems to tower over Gregory Peck, who was a couple of inches taller than him.

Right from the opening scenes, it’s obvious that this is going to be Mitchum’s show all the way. We find Max Cady, just released from prison, visiting the court house where Sam Bowden is practicing. About eight years ago, Bowden was a witness in a rape case that send Cady to prison. Now he is back, and seems to be angry with the whole world. But he is going to concentrate his hatred completely on Bowden. Just take the opening shot of the film: Cady is walking up a set of stairs and passes a woman with an armload of books and ever so slightly brushes against her as he passes causing her to spill some books to the floor. Without a glance or a blink or a flinch of any kind he continues up the stairs without breaking a stride. This moment pretty much sets up the mood of the character and the film. Cady first accosts Bowden, when Bowden is driving away from the court. Bowden doesn’t exactly remember Cady, but Cady makes sure that he remembers him. Bowden is a little disturbed by this visit, but he forgets about it soon enough. We find out that Bowden is happily married, with a wife Peggy(Polly Bergen) and a teenage daughter Nancy(Lori Martin). But soon Cady starts stalking Bowden and his family; he’s at the bowling alley; he’s at the boat yard; and finally, he stalks Nancy in her school, which almost gets her killed. Cady does not make any threats, no hint of violence, he doesn’t do anything that could be called illegal; he studied law during his 8 year stint in jail and he knows the ins and outs of the legal system completely; so he knows why and how the police can get him, and in an irony of all ironies, He is going to use the law to destroy an upright lawyer. One of the things that Mitchum does brilliantly in the role is that he maintains a sense of ambivalence about his actions. When he lasciviously looks at Nancy or seem to observe Bowden and his family from a distance, we are never sure what exactly are his intentions . Is he planning to kill them,rape them, or he is just trying to distract Bowden, Bowden becomes increasingly disturbed by Cady’s presence in is life, but since he hasn’t broken any laws he cant do anything about it.

The first hint of real danger to the family comes with the death of the family’s pet dog; it is found poisoned. Bowden knows that Cady did it, but he cannot prove it. He had Cady brought to the police station and strip searched, but nothing comes of it. The police, under the orders of Chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), a close friend of Bowden, keeps close tabs on Cady, repeatedly bringing him for questioning at the least hint of suspicion. They first try to get him for vagrancy, but soon realize that he is flush with funds; thanks to the sale of his house. Dutton asks Bowden to hire a private investigator to dig up dirt about Cady, as the cops have their legal limitations; Cady had gotten a self righteous lawyer Dave Grafton(Jack Kruschen) to put the leash on the police. So Bowden hire P.I. Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas) to tail Cady. Sievers finds out that Cady has picked up (or rather he has been picked up) by a young woman, Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase), who’s new in town. Bowden believes that Cady can be now incarcerated for lewd vagrancy, but tables are turned again. Cady brutalizes and terrorizes the girl to such an extend, that she is too scared to testify. She leaves town without filing a complaint, in spite of Bowden and Dutton pleading with her to do so. Next, Bowden tries to pay off Cady, but Cady rejects all offers of money, and makes it clear that he is going to follow through with his nefarious plans. Now left with no choice, Bowden is forced to become a law-breaker; as he hires some thugs to take care of Cady, but again, Cady triumphs; a badly beaten up Cady threatens to get Bowden disbarred and sexually violate his wife and daughter. Bowden realizes that law isn’t going to help him in any way, and he will have to do whatever is necessary to protect his family. And to this end, he concocts a dangerous plan: He takes his wife and daughter to their houseboat in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In an attempt to trick Cady, Bowden makes it seem as though he has gone to Atlanta, for the hearing on his disbarment. He fully expects Cady to follow his wife and daughter, and he plans on killing Cady to end the battle. Things go as expected: Bowden returns to the houseboat earlier than expected and waits for Cady. Cady shows up in nick of time. But Cady proves to be much smarter than he thought. Cady first goes for Peggy on the boat, and as Bowden goes to her rescue, Cady swims back to the swamp house to attack Nancy. Bowden too manages to get back to shore and a violent fight breaks out between the two. It ends with Bowden shooting and disabling Cady, who asks him to kill him. But Bowden refuses, as he wants him to rot in prison. The final image shows Bowden united with his family making back to port, accompanied by the police.

Cape Fear is a brilliant example of B film making at it’s finest. The themes and ideas are very much on it’s surface , and it’s ambitions are simply to entertain the audience by giving them a white-knuckle thrill ride. It’s a simple old tale of good vs evil , and in many ways, it’s more of a horror film. Bowden and his family, representing all the goodness and values of a middle class American life, is stalked by this unrelenting evil force; which they cannot combat by any natural means; the rule of law that promises every citizen of the country protection is unable to protect them, and that too, an accomplished lawyer like Bowden. In that regard, Cady is beastly, or worse almost supernatural, and only way Bowden can defeat this force is by offering his family as a sacrificial lamb – to set them up as bait – like you capture a wild beast. And Robert Mitchum plays the character as a sort of shape-shifting, supernatural beast. He’s alternatively a snake, an alligator, a big bad wolf, who relentlessly preys upon the members of the Bowden family. Take the scene where Cady stalks Nancy in school. Cady seems to be everywhere at the same time – the big bad wolf stalking red riding hood. Or take the climax of the film that’s set on the river. Cady takes of his shirt and dives into the water like an alligator going for the kill. He merges bare chested, dripping water and sweat, and kills local deputy Kersek – who has come to help Bowden – by drowning him, leaving no evidence of a struggle. He then attacks Peggy; the scene where he breaks the eggs with his hand and rubs it all on her breasts is chilling to say the least, it was a scene improvised by Mitchum on the spot. Though Mitchum is no method actor, he was so much into his character by this time that he cut his hands doing the scene and also ended up hurting Polly Bergen badly. Director Thompson had to yell cut and then physically separate the two, before Mitchum could do any further damage. A similar situation developed during the final duel between Peck and Mitchum. Mitchum almost drowned Peck while shooting the scene, and one of Peck’s punches landed on Mitchum’s face for real. Mitchum needed a few stitches , and later commented that anybody who picks a fight with Peck is really dumb.

Though Cady is the driving force of the picture, the character who undergoes transformation during the course of the film is Sam Bowden. He starts out as law abiding, but by the end, he realizes the chinks in the system, which appears specifically designed to help guys like Cady. It’s rather ironical that it would take a vicious, cold-blooded, psychopath to expose the flaws in his profession, which he till then considered to be sacrosanct. Peck is more famous for playing Attichus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird that came out later that year, and for which he won an Oscar. But i found his performance here as Bowden much superior, because it’s a more richer character. You could see the gradual deterioration of the character, as he starts working more and more outside the law, though he remains morally upright, in the sense that he’s doing what a family man is supposed to do. His first priority is the protection of his family, and if he cannot do that legally, he’s going to do it his own way. Gregory Peck gives a great performance in the role of Bowden. it’s a subtle, quiet performance that balances the film. Mitchum has the showy part and Peck doesn’t envy his costar. He had great respect and admiration for Mitchum’s talent, which is why he aggressively courted him for the role. But, on a purely artistic note, he did feel that Thompson did not balance out their scenes, and hence the film tilted more towards Mitchum’s character, thus losing it’s balance. There was some tension between Peck and Thompson on account of this, though on a personal level, he, forever a gentleman, gladly attributed the success of the film to Mitchum, as he later said: “It’s Bob’s picture, Best performance he ever gave.”

Coming on the heels of the massive success of The Guns of Navarone – for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Director -, Cape Fear firmly established J. Lee Thompson as a mainstream director of repute. This is a very different film from Navarone, which was a massively budgeted, all star-cast international picture. Here Thompson cleverly uses the camera, and his low budget, to make a superior product of this genre. With the help of cinematographer Sam Leavitt, he designed some odd Hitchcockian camera angles and lighting schemes, mainly going for close ups. Just watch the scene, where Cady comes to meet Bowden and the police chief with his lawyer. During the entire length of the conversation, Cady doesn’t speak a word; The other three are doing all the talking, but Thompson focuses the camera on Cady’s face, with Mitchum giving some of his best expressions, that changes from mocking to malevolence. Thompson also got Hitchcock’s editor George Tomasini to cut the picture, and he does a great job of maintaining the suspense throughout. Though i wish that the climax was better edited. One does loose a sense of geography, between the houseboat and the swamp house; who is where and why. Obviously, the Bernard Hermann score goes a long way in setting up the mood of the film. My most favorite use of music is in the moment when Cady is just about to brutalize Diane. Mitchum’s performance is phenomenal, but it is heightened by the music. We see Cady menacingly approaching Diane as the music starts kicking in and then he violently grabs her and then the camera cuts away. We are left to imagine what happened to Diane. It’s very much Hitchcockian in that sense, where a lot is inferred rather than directly shown. The Censors wouldn’t have allowed them to show much anyway. Thompson always believed that if they had made the film five years later, when the censorship rules were relaxed, the film could have been more effectively made. But i think the censor laws forced a lot of directors to be inventive when it came to violence , as opposed to later, when they became lazy and just started throwing all forms of explicit sex and violence on the screen. The film did decent business at the time of it’s release, it was not a blockbuster on the level of Psycho, as Peck was expecting. The biggest legacy of the film is that Martin Scorsese made a remake of the film in 1991 with Robert De Niro as Max Cady and Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden, which was a big box office success. Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam and Robert Mitchum took supporting parts in the film. But it was an extremely over-produced, over-exaggerated, over-heated, morally ambiguous remake, which i don’t think was a great Scorsese film. Scorsese ran riot with his technique, with truly odd camera movements and editing cuts, and in that regard it’s very interesting and even very entertaining. He even complicate the Bowden Character by making him a cheating, conniving lawyer with a dysfunctional family. But i like the 1962 original more. It was simple, direct, unpretentious story-telling. Robert De Niro gave a technically brilliant performance as Max Cady – strange accent, tattoos and all, that matches the exotic nature of Scorsese’s film making – but it came off more as a caricature. It was no match for Mitchum’s ‘real’ performance. Just to sum up my impressions on the two movies, i would say that Robert De Niro ‘acted’ scary, Robert Mitchum is scary.

5 thoughts on “Cape Fear: Gregory Peck battles Robert Mitchum in this gripping psychological thriller

  1. I wonder if it is necessary to sidestep all the violence against women and blatant underrepresentation of agency of women and celebrate of this performance with this astute analysis. Especially because it includes a worrying “improvisation” by Robert Mitchum.

    I haven’t watched the movies, but I read about the performances of the characters (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Cady). They seem to be written differently based on the budget and intended audience; more like comparing Ranveer Singh in Padmavaat and SRK in Darr (the analogy maybe exaggerated like De Niro’s performance, but you get the gist).

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  2. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this brilliant blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to fresh updates and will talk about this site with my Facebook group. Chat soon!

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  3. Just a few things: The eggs were not Mitchum’s idea, it was J. Lee Thompson’s. Also, I wanted to address what you stated about Scorsese’s remake. I do agree that it’s definitely inferior to it’s 1962 counterpart. As you mentioned, everything about the film is overstated and DeNiro was almost comical as Max Cady. However, I don’t agree with all your criticisms of the film. Scorsese’s film was definitely not morally ambiguous, he doesn’t apologize for Cady’s actions yet on other hand he showed that anyone could be corrupted by evil. In that regard, Martin took this story one step further and did right by doing so. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t have that sort of world weariness.

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    1. Fair enough Ricardo. Maybe I was too hard on Scorsese’s remake. I do get the point you are making. Thanks for commenting

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