We followed up the Mitchum noir Out of the Past with the J. Lee Thompson thriller Cape Fear, which was famously remade into hash by Martin Scorsese. Possibly J. Lee Thompson’s greatest film (next to Guns of Navarrone, maybe) and holy hell what happened to Mitchum?! We had just seen him and he was so handsome and now, not only is he a murderous thug, he looks every day of his 45 years, and then some. It isn’t just the role: He was also in The Longest Day the same year and he still looks like an unmade bed.
This doesn’t hurt that much here, because his attraction is only to the lowest of the low. In this case, Barrie Chase, the gorgeous 29-year-old dancer who manages to pull off “desperate runaway lowlife” really well, however badly it ends for her character.
Which is quite badly indeed.
Noticably missing from the original story here is any attraction between Nancy and Max Caty—but I get ahead of myself.
The story is simple enough: Good guy lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, at his Peckest) finds himself terrorized by Max Caty, a vicious criminal he put away years earlier. Note that he put him away by testifying to crimes he witnessed Caty comitting—unlike the horrible, murkier Scorsese version where Sam frames Caty!—and that’s enough for Caty to want to torture and abuse his daughter Nancy. It’s payback, in his twisted mind, for the prison term that kept him away from his wife and son.
And Mitchum’s recounting of his vengeance on the wife is chilling, and entirely verbal.
The tension in this movie comes from Sam realizing that the law really does not protect you against bad actors who haven’t quite acted badly enough yet. And while Sam is no match for the brutal Caty, he doesn’t really fear him: He fears for his wife and daughter, though, as Caty has explicitly told him his plans. And so Sam must act in an increasingly lawless fashion to protect himself. Martin Balsam does a fine job as the lawman—The Flower recognized him from Psycho but not from 12 Angry Men, where he was much more wish-washy—and Tell Savalas (with hair!) provides the sort of seedy-undercurrent side of detective work, though to no avail.
The shenanigans all lead to a showdown outside of the titular Cape Fear, where Peggy (Polly Bergen) and Nancy (Lori Martin) must escape Caty’s evil plans. Bergen and Martin are terrific here. And, as mentioned earlier, unlike the Scorsese remake, there’s no attraction between Nancy and Caty which would be weird and gross (and really out of character). Whether it’s the toll of the years or just Mitchum’s acting (which is still top notch), it’s really hard to believe any decent woman would be attracted to him. I mean, he’s a dog murderer, for crying out loud.
Really fine film. Not as good as Out of the Past but head-and-shoulders above the remake which, in typical Scorsese style, favors moral ambiguity over the original movie (and James MacDonald book, I’m guessing) which is a struggle of good vs. evil, and how the veneer of civilization is about as thin as we let it be. It’s also more exciting, less overwrought, and generally more fun. I mention all this not to rag on Scorsese (as I do occasionally) but because I actually had some reluctance to see this film because the remake was (to me) so creepy and icky.
The kids liked this one, too, though. The Flower more than Out of the Past, the Boy more on the fence.