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.

Noir of the Week: His Kind of Woman

(Author’s note: I chose His Kind of Woman for as my next Noir of the Week review because of it’s quirkiness and its hardscrabble fight to be ranked as an actual noir film among noir purists. On a personal note, I wasn’t the biggest fan of it the first time I viewed it – it’s long and it reads long – but two or three views in I actually came to enjoy it. It’s a cult-y film, for sure, and it’s very hard to separate it from the mystique surrounding it… something that seems to surround everything that Howard Hughes touched. I tried hard not to crucify Hughes, even though in my personal opinion his tampering trapped a noir film within several other films. He made some good decisions here, and a lot of bad ones, but the result is a funny little film that maybe doesn’t deserve the harsh criticism it seems to receive. His Kind if Woman made for an interesting topic, surrounded by little side stories that went on behind the scenes – much like the stories in the film itself. I could have gone on for pages, but found myself carefully editing down to what I considered the bare bones… probably in light of the fact that Hughes didn’t do much self-editing!)

Loitering uncertainly near the hinterlands of film noir is the Howard Hughes produced, John Farrow/Richard Fleischer directed film His Kind of Woman. The pedigree of the film destined it for greatness: seasoned directors, smoldering stars, and a stable of gritty noir screenwriters, all financed by the large bankroll of a playboy genius. His Kind of Woman just may be the greatest noir film that never was. What RKO delivered to theaters was a bloated, schizophrenic film – a Frankenstein’s monster of beautifully crafted noir spliced together with a smattering of scenes from several genres. Is the film noir? Yes, undeniably. However, it is also an ensemble melodrama, a Hollywood satire, and a battle of the sexes comedy, mixed thoroughly with a dash of slapstick. So what went wrong? It may be ungracious to lay the blame entirely at the feet of Hughes (after all, what better match for a noir film than a producer controlled by a dark obsessive nature?), but his incessant tinkering and additions are what ultimately doomed the film.

His Kind of Woman was a perfect fit for production company RKO. Though the company had been in financial flux for years, it produced and distributed a heap of films that were successes both critically and commercially in a number of genres. Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Laurel and Hardy, and Walt Disney all had ties with RKO before Howard Hughes gained control of it in 1948, but noir was a house special by that point. The pre-Hughes RKO had released some of the finest films noir we know today: Born to Kill, Murder My Sweet, The Woman in the Window, Stranger on the Third Floor, Out of the Past, Desperate, The Stranger, and Crossfire. His Kind of Woman wasn’t the first or last film noir that Hughes would meddle with, turning out less than stellar results (see also: The Racket and The Las Vegas Story) but the genre would survive in spite of him. Consider the following films, released under RKO during Hughes’ reign: The Narrow Margin, Clash by Night, Cry Danger, The Big Steal, The Set Up, The Hitch-Hiker, Sudden Fear, On Dangerous Ground, Armored Car Robbery, and Beware, My Lovely. This hindsight makes it all the more sad that His Kind of Woman doesn’t quite fit in with the other great films being made alongside it.

In His Kind of Woman, Mitchum plays Dan Milner, a down on his luck gambler lured to exotic Morro’s Lodge by a cadre of shady characters and the promise of $50,000. On the way to Mexico, he meets millionaire chanteuse Lenore Brent, played by Russell. In actuality, she’s a gold digger (with a heart to match) hoping to snag fellow Lodge guest, Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price). The film stalls in its Mexican locale, with Milner and Russell rubbing elbows with supporting cast players while Milner, and the audience, try to unravel the reason we’ve all traveled so far. When Milner overhears suspicious plans between two resorts guests, Krafft and Thompson (John Mylong and Charles McGraw), his curiosity is deferred by another stack of cash. Milner is eventually reinvigorated by the arrival of undercover immigration agent Bill Lusk (Tim Holt), who lets Milner know deported gangster Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) is behind the scheme and that Krafft is actually a plastic surgeon! Ferraro’s plan is to kidnap Milner, kill him, rearrange his face, and waltz across the border using Milner’s identity. It’s an interesting plot, but gets shelved for too long while Milner is dragged into the useless side stories revolving around the supporting cast of Morro’s Lodge guests. By the time the film gets back on track with the shockingly brutal climax between Milner and Ferraro, the whos, whats, and whys of the plot are almost distant memories.

The plot may be farfetched, but it works in Hollywood, and even in the realistic world of film noir (we’ve seen plastic surgery before in Dark Passage and an even stranger premise in Decoy). Here, it gets lost in the morass of superfluous genres. The biggest detriment to the film was Hughes’ inability to edit himself. Director John Farrow finished the film, but unhappy with the result, Hughes brought in Richard Fleischer to reshoot much of it, recast villain Nick Ferraro, and neatly inserted himself into the screenwriting process. In the end result, you can pick out Hughes’ contributions with near certainty: useless subplots, not one but two dashing aviators, and the endless scenes involving Vincent Price’s character, whom Hughes fell in love with. Yet a patient film lover can pluck out the noir diamond in rough. There are many faultless elements in the film, from cast to cinematography, that tell us His Kind of Woman was carefully crafted and not carelessly churned out of the Hollywood mill.

The stable of actors in His Kind of Woman is somewhat of a noir dream. Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr, Vincent Price, and John Mylong carry with them the experience, grittiness, and sex appeal to pull the film off. Unfortunately, the cast became bloated with a number of supporting actors (Hughes pet Mamie Van Doren supposedly beautifies the background; can you spot her?) that advance the runtime of the film, but not the action. Time spent with bit players Jim Backus and Marjorie Reynolds would have been best served developing the underutilized McGraw and thoroughly creepy Mylong.

Mitchum is the typical noir anti-hero, albeit a little watered down. Milner is a professional gambler, yet he eschews bourbon for milk and ginger ale. He can take a beating and handle a Luger, yet he shows a softer side to help out a couple of struggling newlyweds at Morro’s Lodge. Despite this, Mitchum is the same tall, dark, and sardonic underdog that we like to see, sauntering lazily through the lodge, or gazing half-lidded at Jane Russell. He’s at his best throughout the film, especially sharing scenes with Burr. Recasting Burr as Ferraro is the best “bad” decision Hughes made during the filming. Had the comedy and melodrama been cut and the climax between Ferraro and Milner come a half hour earlier, His Kind of Woman would be a darling among noir lovers. The clash between shirtless, sweaty Mitchum and chillingly sadistic Burr is so disturbing and provocative one wonders how it escaped censors.

Vincent Price, though he is talented here, is ill-used. Hughes fixated on the Cardigan character and padded Price’s role with comedy, action, and romance, much to the detriment of the film, which is such a shame because he’s fantastic! Watch Price during the scene where Cardigan is shamelessly screening his own film to the entire resort: he writhes and simpers in his seat, demurring the accolades he thinks he is receiving from his audience. The problem is the insistent shoehorning of Cardigan into the film – going so far as to maddeningly portray him as hero alongside Mitchum. In one scene Price is the Errol Flynn-like Hollywood actor butting heads with his agent and wistfully longing to be a real swashbuckling hero. In another, he’s the male third of a love triangle trading quips about love and marriage with wife Marjorie Reynolds and mistress Jane Russell. One almost wishes that Hughes had contrived a Mark Cardigan series of light comedies to produce and left him out of His Kind of Woman. Indeed, you could chop out Price’s entire contribution to the film with no ill effects. He adds almost nothing to the working plot, and what little he does to advance the story could (and should) have been handled by Mitchum.

Russell was one of Hughes’ most famous muses – it’s telling and touching that when jumping ship at RKO in 1955, two of the things Hughes took with him was a sack of cash and Jane Russell’s contract. Perhaps at first Hughes was most attracted to Russell’s two most famous assets, but he unearthed a Hollywood talent. As Lenore in His Kind of Woman, she is the femme fatale with the heart of gold, able to stand up to Mitchum with both her stature and ability to deliver the necessary repartee. Louella Parsons called them “the hottest combination to ever hit the screen,” and it’s a pity we don’t see Lenore take a more pivotal role in the film. When Cardigan locks her in the closet near the end of the film it is almost as if Hughes found a way to get rid of Russell in order to make room for more Mark Cardigan screen time.

The noir scenes are as beautiful as noir gets, shot by cinematographer Harry J. Wild, who had already been behind the camera for several noir films including Murder My Sweet, The Big Steal, Pitfall, and Nocturne. Wild’s shadowy scenes are striking; the line of demarcation between the beautifully lit noir scenes and the run of the mill scenes is clear, making it more of a pleasure when Mitchum and McGraw amble into rooms slashed with moonlight. The set designer deserves some credit for heavy lifting here: the mid-century design of Morro’s Lodge seems to be built for a talented cinematographer. Low ceilings and gaping louvered blinds lend a sense of urgency to Milner’s plight the script doesn’t seem eager to impart.

It’s hard to justify a film that begins with a boxcar diner scene reminiscent of The Killers, and ends with Vincent Price sinking a boat filled with Mexican policemen, but His Kind of Woman isn’t terrible. It might not even be bad. Certainly we have an instance where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. His Kind of Woman is often looked down upon as not being real noir among genre fans (there’s ridiculous comedy, and a lot of it), yet the heart of the film – the best of it – is real noir. Like an insect trapped in amber, it’s surrounded by the trappings of Hollywood… an interesting artifact of the genre worth studying.