I can’t tell you how much I love Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962). And there is so much to love: Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Bernard Herrmann’s score,* the blackness of the lighting, the articulation of the toxicity of a certain type of masculinity, the vacuum that exists without it, the articulation of the anxieties about rape as the limit of the law. So so so good. And all these elements are deeply entangled, which elevates the whole.
I’m fascinated by surfaces. By performances, by light and color and texture. What fascinates me about film is its flatness. That can, at times, expand and swallow us up. I fall into novels. Films swallow me.
And with that fascination, I’m less interested in canonical themes or authorial intention. Good vs. Evil, Explorations of Love, Catholicism, Guilt or whathaveyou: I see them. Sometimes they can add depth for me, but mostly I try not to let them weigh me down. And they frequently do weigh down the films in which they live. How many times have you been hammered with thematic significance? It’s like when they say the title of the movie in the dialogue. Ok. I get it.
So when a scholar like Robert Kolker says something about the original Cape Fear lacking the thematic depth of either Psycho or Scorsese’s ‘91 re-make, that doesn’t bother me at all. He writes, it “lacks the complex resonance of Psycho.” Spare me the thematic depth. Thematic depth didn’t rescue the second half of Psycho from the doldrums.
And this is not to say I don’t like ideas in my movies. Because I do. Nor is it to say that I’m only interested in surface. Because I’m not. It’s infuriating when someone builds an amazing world and then does nothing of interest with it (I’m looking at you Avatar and Suicide Squad).
But perhaps because my aesthetic was forged in melodrama, musicals, and noir, style counts. A lot. For me a great film reveals its meanings, its themes, through style. The thematic doubling between the central figures in Cape Fear is cool, but the way in which they are visually matched is amazing. Indeed, Gregory Peck was to play Max Cady at first. Which lets us imagine a very different film.
First, let’s talk about Robert Mitchum as Max Cady an ex-con who comes to town and sets off the action. I could spend every day talking about Robert Mitchum: from Out of the Past to Dead Man and everything in between. IMDB gives him 20 credits for 1943—20 bit parts, unnamed characters and without screen credit. By 1947, he’s got the lead in the noir-iest of noirs, Out of the Past. He’s doing his broody heavy-eyed charm in Macao and Angel Face. In ‘55, he plays Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter. Then keeping with crooked patriarchs, he leads Vincent Minnelli’s family melodrama in Home from the Hill. And we can’t forget the easy boozy charm of his Westerns with Howard Hawks. Despite the variety of roles and genres, his star persona is pretty stable: an ease, a charm, intensity and a certain unpredictable-ness. He’s always fun to watch.
Oh, but from the first moment Mitchum’s Cady strolls into the frame: louche, loose and leering at women. We watch him from behind as he makes his way up to the courthouse. In a panama hat, roomy white suit, cigar, even as he strolls, he seems crackling with energy. He slowly ascends the steps. Turns his head to watch a woman wiggle by. Brushes through the lobby, bumping into folks, making absolutely no gesture to help as a woman that he hits with his shoulder drops her books down the steps as a result. It’s small, petty, and a little bit shocking. We instinctually bend to help. But he doesn’t. And we know. I can never resist a small revelatory bit. It is tremendous acting. Mitchum is shot so his sleepy, hooded, bedroom eyes flatten out and become reptilian. He slouches and rolls. He oozes sexual predatory-ness. He is a dangerous animal stalking his prey.
The focal point of all that aggression is Bowden, played by the clear-cut angular handsomeness of Gregory Peck. Peck’s posture. His voice. The way in which he can exude upstanding-ness without being inhuman or inhumane is extraordinary. He does it to perfection. Bowden is an easy role for Peck. Right in the pocket of his star persona (Cape Fear was released the same year as his signature turn in To Kill a Mockingbird). The small town lawyer who intervened both physically and through his testimony in Cady’s (rape-y) business. Bowden with the clear-cut life, with the wife and daughter, solid job, beautiful home, member of the community. Here’s a man who has done everything right. And it nearly doesn’t matter. The reason it does is because Peck is never (just) wooden. He’s got charisma. Flashes of humor. And he’s just beautiful to look at. He doesn’t, or can’t, just let Mitchum/Cady walk away with the film.
The censors in 1962 wouldn’t allow the word “rape” to be spoken. In a film that circles around rape. That is, in fact, a meditation about the rape and limits of the law. About rape and masculinity. That, my friends, is what they call a structuring absence. So how does this work? Bowden put Cady in jail for rape. For 7 years. And comes out rape-y-er than ever. His plan for revenge is to rape Bowden’s wife and adolescent daughter. And even that is not enough. He sexually attacks another woman in the meantime. She won’t prosecute. And the menfolk of the film judge her—for being there in the first place, for not protecting herself under the wing of the law, for not helping them. But she is very alert to the cost of prosecution and unsurprisingly wants nothing to do with their judgments.
It is chillingly telling that this narrative about rape, that never says the word aloud even while it constantly threatens sexual violence, is about a battle of wills between two men. The women are incidental. They are the objects of the violence rather than the subjects of the action. Things are done to them. They don’t do things. And that, my friends, is big P Patriarchy works. But the performances of these women—Polly Bergen as Sam’s wife Peggy and Lori Martin as his daughter Nancy—still comes through strongly. Bergen is unexpectedly earthy and knowing. Martin’s terror is palpable. But the fact remains the movie isn’t about them. It’s about this battle, embodied by Cady and Bowden, by Mitchum and Peck, about the very limits of the law.
Bowden’s standing respect for the law, his unspoken and organizing belief that the law will out, is shaken. Cady wins that one even as he is physically defeated. It leaves us with a deep ambiguity. Bowden lies in wait in a swamp for Cady. Cady slinks through like an alligator.
It all comes down to a physical fight between these two men. The law (local law enforcement) is overcome, even as the Law (the patriarchal Law of the Father) is upheld. And this is all made visible through the doubling of the two men in a final fight.
It’s kind of a muddle. Cady represents the most unmoored version of violent masculinity; Bowden is the liberal model of modern man. Bowden wins, but only through operating outside of his own moral and ethical codes, which have failed throughout the film.
Given this, and its moment, it’s unsurprising that Cape Fear was not a financial success. It undid Peck’s production company Melville Production. Which in turn may have given us all some unexpected late-career Peck performances (The Omen??!!). For which we should all be ambiguously grateful.
But mostly I’m really glad this film was made, with these actors, and this director, and this composer.
*Herrmann’s ability to transform the banal and everyday into dread and significance (Psycho, Taxi Driver) and ratchet it up to a fever pitch of tension that can only explode in violence.