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In the annals of screen psychopaths, there are few who can top Robert Mitchum's Max Cady in the 1962 version of Cape Fear. A convicted sex offender who is released from prison after serving a six year sentence, Cady is a walking time bomb, bidding his time until he can take revenge on the prosecutor who put him away. Everything about him exudes menace, from his hooded eyes and insouciant sexual swagger to his smirking, undisguised contempt for everyone he meets. Mitchum was born to play this role and he applies the same relentless intensity to the part that he brought to his portrayal of Harry Powell, the homicidal preacher from The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Gregory Peck actually deserves the credit for casting Mitchum as Max Cady and taking the more low-key role of attorney Sam Bowden. After buying the rights to the John D. MacDonald novel, The Executioners, Peck reassembled several previous collaborators who had served him well in the past, namely J. Lee Thompson, who had just helmed the enormously successful war adventure, The Guns of Navarone (1961), producer Sy Bartlett and screenwriter James Webb. Initially, Rod Steiger and Telly Savalas were considered for the part of Cady but once Mitchum became a possibility, Peck pushed for his commitment. At first Mitchum didn't want to do the film but finally relented after Peck and Thompson delivered a case of bourbon to his home. His reply, "Ok, I've drunk your bourbon. I'm drunk. I'll do it."
For Mitchum, Cape Fear was a homecoming of sorts. Partially filmed in Savannah, Georgia, it marked the actor's return to a city where he had once been arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang. At the same time, Mitchum was still on probation from a previous charge of marijuana possession. The irony of playing an ex-con certainly wasn't lost on the actor; he had clashed with the law many times before and understood hard-bitten losers like Max Cady intimately. J. Lee Thompson recalled (in Lee Server's biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care), "..when we had the violent scenes, he did work himself up. When he was playing one of those scenes he looked at you like he was going to kill you....There was a scene with Barrie Chase, where he's being very rough with her. And I had to stop filming at one or two points to let things cool down...Barrie Chase was frightened of him; I know that because she told me so. She admired him, as everyone did. But, you know, he made people frightened."
The most difficult scenes to shoot, however, were the climactic confrontations at the film's end when Cady closes in on Bowden and his family, hiding out in a houseboat on a remote part of the Cape Fear river. In Server's book, Thompson said that Mitchum "liked getting in the water and having that fight with Greg. I'm not too sure about Greg liking it, because he was on the receiving end. He had to be forced underwater, and Mitchum kept him under there for quite a long time. We devised a code so that Peck could come up if it was getting too much for him. But sometimes Mitchum overstepped the line. I mean, he was meant to be drowning Greg, and he really took it to the limit." His scenes with Polly Bergen, playing Bowden's terrorized wife, were equally intense and included one particularly disturbing bit of improvisation - Mitchum cracking raw eggs on the actress and smearing them over her breasts. The scene builds to Cady physically attacking Bowden's wife and, during the filming (according to Server), Mitchum ripped his hand open on a cabinet. Bergen recalled, "His hand was covered in blood, my back was covered in blood. We just kept going, caught up in the scene. They came over and physically stopped us."
The Production Code Administration still wielded power in the film industry in the early sixties and Cape Fear was certainly a cause for concern for them. After reviewing the film, suggestions were made to remove "1) All shots which concentrate on the middle part of the pursuer's body," 2) the line, "Nancy is getting to be almost as juicy as your wife," 3) the line, "I kept her busy for three days," and 4) the action of Cady kneeing a man in the groin." (From Gregory Peck: A Filmography by Molyneaux). The repeated use of the word "rape" was also substituted with "attack" but the film still encountered problems from the British censors who demanded 161 cuts! Cape Fear was finally released there shorn of six minutes of footage. Because of the film's disturbing nature, critical reviews were mixed. Brendan Gill of The New Yorker was especially appalled, writing, "It purports to be a thriller but is really an exercise in sadism, and everyone concerned with this repellent attempt to make a great deal of money out of a clumsy plunge into sexual pathology should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. What on earth is Gregory Peck doing in such a movie?" Yet, the film's claustrophobic sense of impending terror and Mitchum's mesmerizing performance are hard to dismiss lightly. Perhaps some critics complained because the filmmakers succeeded too well in unsettling their audience.
In 1991, Cape Fear was remade by director Martin Scorsese who scored a box-office hit with it. Luckily, Gregory Peck, who owned the property, finally made good on his initial investment (the 1961 version was only a modest success) plus he got to appear in a cameo role as a sleazy Southern lawyer (one critic wrote, "Mr. Peck might have been Atticus Finch's evil twin thirty years later.") Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam, who also appeared in the 1961 version, also had bit parts. Although many people were impressed by Robert De Niro's portrayal of Max Cady as a Bible-quoting, Pentecostal lunatic - he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar - Mitchum's performance is still hard to top in terms of his imposing physicality and reptilian-like menace. Whereas De Niro's Cady is flamboyantly crazy, dressing up in drag or quoting from Popeye cartoons, Mitchum's killer is a more quietly unpredictable predator, suggesting countless, untold perversions lurking just beneath the surface, ready to erupt.
Producer: Sy Bartlett
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: James R. Webb, John D. MacDonald (novel)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Film Editing: George Tomasini
Art Direction: Robert Boyle, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Police Chief Dutton), Jack Kruschen (Dave Grafton).
BW-106m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford