Noir of the Week: Cape Fear

(As always, if you are interested in classic film or films noir, please stop by the Film Noir Foundation. If you are interested in learning more about noir, head over to Steve’s wonderful Noir of the Week or the Back Alley Noir forums.)

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” – Aristotle

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly a decade after defense attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) acts as Good Samaritan by intervening in an attempted rape, perpetrator Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) tracks him to Savannah, Georgia and begins to deal out long-awaited retribution on Bowden’s family. As Cady carefully navigates the ever-thinning line between licit and illicit, Bowden becomes increasingly vulnerable to crossing criminal boundaries in order to protect his wife and daughter. The threat of the stable family unit by outside forces is a common motif in the noir genre, but never did the threat feel as tangible as it did in Cape Fear. An unpretentious film, it was received as coarse and vulgar in its time, yet it provokes a visceral reaction from the viewer as it questions the supposed usefulness of societal law.

The making of Cape Fear was put into motion by Gregory Peck, who also acted as producer through his motion picture company, Melville Productions. While his production house may have been named after a respectable author, Cape Fear’s origin was pulp – the touchstone of film noir screenplays. Though author John D. MacDonald was a graduate of Syracuse and Harvard universities, the Second World War derailed his life, and once discharged he found himself penning short stories for even shorter stacks of cash. Thanks to a booming crime novel market MacDonald was well-known by the time he wrote The Executioners, which eventually fell into the hands of Peck. Under the impression that films with geographical titles did well at the box office, Peck ran his finger down the Eastern Seaboard until he hit the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In short order, Peck assigned himself the role of Sam Bowden and handed Cady’s reigns over to drinking partner Robert Mitchum.

Peck looked no further than his last director, J. Lee Thompson who had earned himself an Academy Award nomination with The Guns of Navarone. Cape Fear would be Thompson’s sole expedition into noir territory, but he was enthusiastic about conveying the film’s sense of threat and carnal undertones. Director of Photography Samuel Leavitt had little more experience with the genre. When all was said and done, his offerings were slightly dubious noirs like Johnny Cool, Crime in the Streets, and The Crimson Kimono. Yet Leavitt absolutely understood how to film chiaroscuro; after all, he took home the Oscar for black and white cinematography for Anatomy of a Murder and The Defiant Ones. Leavitt elevates Cape Fear from thriller to noir with his careful attention to shadows and light: he and Thompson shoot Mitchum behind a blur of black wrought-iron, with shadows of bar glasses gleaming on his naked back, and the sheen of sweat and black blood glistening on his skin.

“Hello, Counselor. Remember me?” – Max Cady

Max Cady has spent the last eight years, four months and thirteen days (roughly) with one thing on his mind: revenge against the man whose interference put him behind bars. Or, more accurately, Cady has spent his incarceration learning the loopholes in criminal law so he may legally terrorize Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen), and teenaged daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). The film follows Cady as he plagues the Bowden family unit, but always outside the long arm of the law. There are no witnesses when he poisons the family dog. And if he’s outside Nancy’s school or leering at her on a boat dock? Well, a man has a right to be in public places, does he not? Not without resources, Bowden pulls a few strings and asks police chief Dutton (Martin Balsam) to roust Cady or dig up some warrants – but he’s clean. “You show me a law that prevents crime. All we can do is act after the fact,” Dutton complains. When the chief somewhat scornfully suggests a private detective, Bowden hires Charlie Sievers (played by a positively hirsute Telly Savalas) and Bowden is finally given something he can work with. Sievers follows Cady and finds that he has picked up and brutally beaten a young woman named Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase.) However, it is Cady who is sending a message to the counselor: he’s hurt and scared the young woman so badly she refuses to press charges or make a statement. Cady’s threat to her looms so large that she flees the city in the middle of the night. Bowden and his wife, Peggy, understand now that this is what Cady means to do to Nancy. It’s not the act that is important to Cady; he wants Bowden to think about an attack on his daughter for the rest of his life.

The denouement of the film is particularly tense and almost wordless, and Bowden’s indecision about his own capabilities and the practicality of law are neatly tied up. After a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse through swampland, Bowden has Cady lined up in the sights of his revolver but does not pull the trigger. He dooms him to spend the rest of his life in jail and restores his own faith (if not so much the audience’s) in justice.

“You just put the law in my hands and I’m going to break your heart with it.” – Max Cady

Although the ending of Cape Fear stops short of the anticipated slaughter of Max Cady, the film goes beyond B-grade horror by doing an effective job of exploring the uneasy introspection of the its hero. While Cady patiently bides his time in the murky grey waters of the law, Bowden becomes positively mired in it. He’s a man who has built the foundations of his life in the black and white world of right and wrong only to discover that a he cannot use logic to solve an illogical problem. The core struggle in the film is not whether Bowden will stop Cady’s reprisal, but whether he will give up the known truths in his life to operate outside societal rules. Sam Bowden never quite makes the transition into full-fledged noir anti-hero. Though he constantly questions the law’s ability to protect upright citizens, he only dips his toes into the criminal cesspool when he hires thugs to rough up Cady after Diane Taylor’s assault. After the thugs are neatly dispatched by Cady, Bowden waits for imminent threat to his wife and daughter before he takes personal responsibility; he’s only willing to bloody his knuckles within the confines of the laws he stubbornly clings to.

“Max Cady, what I like about you is you’re rock bottom. I don’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” – Diane Taylor

Draw a line in the sand, because the debate for Mitchum’s best villainous role is about to begin. Watch these Cape Fear scenes back to back: Cady’s soliloquy on the reckoning of his ex-wife, the aroused phone call he makes after he’s worked over by a chain, and the treatment he gives Peggy Bowden on the houseboat. Mitchum’s accolades for his work in Charles Laughton’s delirious The Night of the Hunter are deserved, but his character is not as authentically depraved as Cady. Yes, preacher Harry Powell surely is a devil of a man, but his performance there is somewhat tempered (through no fault of his own) in the dreamlike mise-en-scène. Powell’s ruse of posing as a preacher renders Mitchum’s performance just the tiniest bit hammy – though no less fun to watch. However, Powell is like a character in a nightmare the audience can wake up from. Max Cady’s foundation is realism; you find him not in your nightmares, but in your local tavern.

Inevitably, what made Cady such a great noir baddie caused great concern for the censors: he stares unabashedly at a scantily clad adolescent and slowly smears raw egg across a woman’s décolletage. Mitchum doesn’t walk in this film, he oozes. During the climax he slithers into the swamp like a cottonmouth. Any perceived slight gives Cady the motivation for savagery, and he wallows in the fun of it. Though censors had grown more lenient since the inception of the Hays Code, they were still vigilant with respect to two issues. Gone was Max Cady’s past as American Government Issue. In the past, noir films had gotten away with the unstable soldier issue by giving characters a good case of shell shock or amnesia, but Cady goes through life as a psychotic rapist, unchallenged by the Army or prison. Gone too, is the real reason Cady focuses on Bowden’s daughter. The original attack the good counselor tried to prevent was not on a woman, but a fourteen year-old girl. Cady finds a certain humor and justice in despoiling Bowden’s adolescent daughter. While British censor John Trevelyan lopped six minutes of Cady’s degenerate behaviour off the UK version, American censors gave Thompson a little more leeway with his film. Good thing, too: his portrayal of Bowden’s antagonist is the driving force behind the film and Cape Fear would fall flat with a tamer villain.

Cape Fear is a transitional film, one of the last that can claim noir roots. If its predecessors were thoughtful noir films like Act of Violence, then Cape Fear ushered in the era of psychological horror along with Psycho. It was not well-received by audiences despite the release of Hitchcock’s film two years prior. It came up about one million dollars short of production costs. “What on earth is Gregory Peck doing in such a movie?” The New Yorker wondered, calling it “A repellent attempt to make a great deal of money… out of sexual pathology.” Indeed, Cape Fear would be the last film put out by Peck’s Melville Productions. But in Hollywood everything old becomes new again, and when Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear as an homage to Thompson’s film, Peck received a rather late return on his investment and a new audience was introduced to Max Cady. While Robert DeNiro’s Cady is fun to watch, it is Mitchum’s performance that has stood the test of time. Cape Fear is ageless: still unapologetic, still chilling, still raising relevant questions. Watch this one at night with the lights turned low and raise the volume for Bernard Herrmann’s disconcerting hymn to depravity.

Buddy JP and Ritchie – on this day.

Waylon Jennings, who gave up his seat on the plane for his sick friend, JP, and Buddy Holly

JP Richardson, aka The Big Bopper

Ritchie Valens

Not pictured: pilot Roger Peterson

My first memory of music.


Gone far too long, but not forgotten.

Six Modern Artists Doing Right by the Past –

6.) The Reverend Horton Heat

The good reverend himself, Jim Heath, and his band have been plying their trade for decades; it would be a sin to leave them off the list!  They say the Holy Ghost himself sculpted the Reverend’s hands to play a Gretsch.

5.) The Chop Tops

Can we talk about Sinner’s cardio?  Cause the man plays stand up drums and is able to sing like this.  Live recordings on YouTube make The Chop Tops sound especially terrible, so watch this video, process Sinner’s inhuman cardio and go buy Triple Deuces.

4.) Los Straitjackets

If you’re looking for a group of well-dressed gentleman from Nashville playing surf rock and wearing Mexican luchador masks, well then, look no further!

3.) Imelda May

Let’s not forget that when the Beatles infiltrated America, UK fans were more than happy to take up the torch for rockabilly, as it’s popularity in the States was already waning, and rock was already evolving into something different.  May’s voice is smooth and beautiful when she does jazz standards, but listen to the Wanda Jackson creep in on this Burnette standard:

2.) Nick 13

I already said my piece about Nick here, but wanted to include him again.  If you’re looking for a Hank Williams that’s not Hank 3, then find Nick 13.

1.) Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys

If your music catalog can simultaneously remind someone of Richie Valens and Louis Jordan, you must be doing something right.  Go buy all of Sandy’s albums.  Start with Turntable Matinee and go from there.  The music’s jump blues… it’s roots rockabilly… it’s western swing… it’s really hard to pick a song to put here to encompass his talent.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, I think it’s this: wear more suits and respect the stand-up bass.

Movies I Hate to Love-Part One

This is the least ridiculous poster I could find.  Think about that. 

In 1952 director Fred Zinneman took a magazine story called “The Tin Star,” teamed together with a mostly uncredited cinematographer, and shot a deceptively beautiful genre bending western about a quiet man who chooses to walk the lonely road of doing what is right, rather than what is easy.

High Noon did not win the Academy Award in 1952.

It’s something I struggle with now, but High Noon was far, far off my radar, as were the Academy Awards.  When I was 5 I thought I would grow up to be a trapeze artist and The Greastest Show on Earth is why.  If someone had told little me that important people had gotten together in Hollywood and decided this movie was better than all the others?  Hell yes, it was!  Human drama, people, human drama!

This film is so, so soapy.  In fact, it’s surprising that they had time for such hand-wringing, eye-rolling drama given that the entire film is basically one long product placement ad for Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus.  It’s surprising the main actors were given time for such drama considering the film is full of Hollywood cameos… everyone from Bob Hope to Lawrence Tierney is here.

You’ll thank me for the time you spend watching this SEVEN MINUTE trailer.

The plot, oh, the plot!  Main plots and subplots and threads of humor and suspense thrown in just because this is Cecile B. De Mille and bythewaythisisallinTechnicolor!  So let’s talk about what is going on here.

Brad (Charlton Heston) runs a circus with an iron fist and no time for trivial things like emotions, interpersonal relationships, or hobbies.  Brad’s loved by two women: trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton) and elephant rider trainer stuntwoman Angel (Gloria Grahame).  Dare I say the love triangle is turned into a three ring circus by the arrival of hypersexual trapeze master The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde)?  Oh there’s a few other trifling details: everyone’s job is on the line as the circus on the verge of bankruptcy, Angel is in a relationship with psychopath elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger), there’s a crooked carney running games, Sebastian is disfigured in a trapeze accident, Buttons the clown (Jimmy Stewart) can never take off his makeup because he’s actually a doctor hiding from police for mercy-killing his wife, and oh, the circus train derails and almost kills Brad.

This is why I grew up hating Cornel Wilde.  I couldn’t get this out of my head.

There are so many unintentionally hilarious things about this movie.  Take, for instance, the above screen cap.  Sebastian has just fallen from his trapeze and landed on the net he cut down in a fit of foreshadowing before his act.  Though his hand will be mangled into a pale claw and he’s probably suffering from fractured ribs and at least one collapsed lung, he staggers out of the ring with the bloody imprint of said net on his chest.  Try not to laugh.  Be awed and wonder who thought to include that tiny gem in a film so epic that it redefined scale.

“Well, shore, that’s my Iron Jaw mouthpiece.”

Should my upper-body strength fail to develop by the time I reached adulthood, I felt sure I could secure a circus job like Dorothy Lamour’s gum-chewing Phyllis.  Phyillis’s character is sadly neglected in the film, mostly relegated to singing, riding around on a circus float as the Moon Goddess and making allusions to her main act: holding up her own weight by a mouth apparatus and spinning around.  My sister and I argued for years on whether this leather strap she put in her mouth was called the “Air & Jaw” (me) or “Iron Jaw” (her) mouthpiece.  I finally gave in in adulthood, but I still think Air & Jaw is a viable name.

“Angel!  Angeeeel!”

Did I mention Klaus and the crooked carny plan a great train robbery, inadvertently causing the circus train to crash and the near exsanguination of Brad?  Well they do, and The Great Sebastian saves Brad’s life with a Johnny on the Spot blood transfusion performed by Buttons the clown, thereby putting him in danger of being caught by the FBI man hitching a ride on the circus train.  What.  It could happen.  Which brings me to my next point…

The dialogue in here is simultaneously the best and worst thing to ever happen.  Sebastian to Holly while he’s giving Brad blood: “If he should make love well after this, pay no attention.  It will be me.”  Ultimately, Brad does choose Holly and one must wonder if Holly thereby got the best of both worlds – Sebastian’s lovemaking stamina in a Charlton Heston vessel.  I’m surprised no one has thus far latched on to Sebastian’s practice of comparing women to different types of alcohol.  It’s pretty smooth…  Angel? “Like cognac… all fire in the glass!”  Holly? “You are like champagne; you make my head spin.”

Here’s a fun game.  Drink whenever someone accuses Brad Braden of having sawdust in his veins.

If, up until this point, I have failed to mention that this film could also be classified as a MUSICAL, it is only because I think we should all take a step back and think about what I have said until this point.  Mercy killing clowns.  Cornel Wilde in aqua trapeze tights.  A man choosing Betty Hutton over Gloria Grahame.  Now add what can only be referred to as “spectacles” of song.

Clearly we have moved beyond the pale, here.

I now love and appreciate High Noon just as much as my five-year-old self loved The Greatest Show on Earth but I would be hard pressed to say which film I quote more often.