Friday, June 14, 2013

Cape Fear (1962)

Director: J. Lee Thompson                             Writer: James R. Webb
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                        Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen and Martin Balsam

Bob Mitchum is just flat-out great. After playing the protagonist in dozens of noir films in the forties and early fifties, he had a singular and startling performance as a villain in Night of the Hunter. But that heavily stylized role is nothing compared to the menace he brings to Cape Fear. He’s just beautiful, in his white suit and Panama hat--turning the black and white symbolism on its head--like a tourist out seeing the sights. But underneath he’s pure evil. His Max Cady is one of the greatest screen villains of all time. And the object of his obsession is Gregory Peck, who hadn’t yet played Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, but still had an air of moral gravitas and certitude. It’s a battle for the ages and one that makes other domestic suspense stories, like The Desperate Hours, seem pale in comparison.

Peck plays a North Carolina lawyer who had witnessed an attack on a woman eight years earlier, and whose testimony helped send Mitchum to prison. The film opens with Mitchum, now free, stalking Peck and his family in retribution. Mitchum is great the way he manipulates everything in order to keep himself technically within the law. And the pressure that he exerts on Peck is masterful. The film that comes immediately to mind in the same vein is Internal Affairs with Richard Gere and Andy Garcia. But here there’s an extra element of sexuality as Mitchum makes clear his intention to rape Peck’s teenage daughter. That particular aspect is something that would be explored more deeply in the Cape Fear remake with Robert DiNero and Nick Nolte.

Director J. Lee Thompson, who had directed Peck in The Guns of Navarone, and later in Mackenna’s Gold, does some good work here, especially in the night scenes. He also uses some nice framing shots and angles, especially when he’s shooting Mitchum. The production design is also excellent for the time. A lot of sixties films have spare sets that seem very artificial, but the use of what looks to be real sets here looks great. The supporting cast is solid, with Martin Balsam as the police chief, Polly Bergen as Peck’s wife, Telly Savalas as a private detective, and Lori Martin as the daughter. But one of the best aspects of the film is the incredibly evocative score by Bernard Herrmann. The score was so good that Elmer Bernstein used it for the remake.

With a climax that is a good twenty minutes long, it’s an incredible thriller, full of tension and suspense. Most film historians place the end of the noir era at Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958, but this film proves that it was still going strong four years later. Cape Fear is a powerful noir film masquerading as a crime drama. Nearly every aspect of the film is flawless and it remains one of the all time greats.

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