Doubling Down–Cape Fear

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, 4-confronting-the-unspeakablethe 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.  doubleIndeed, 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.cape5 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. 009-robert-mitchum-theredlist-1

The focal point of all that aggression is Bowden, played by the clear-cut angular handsomeness of Gregory Peck. Peck’s posture. His voice. peck-cape-fearThe 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. tumblr_inline_nlrxcvvmx31qc31jcThey 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. upshot-cape-fear-1961





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.

–Kathleen Murray

Shock Cinema 51

For people who get distracted at the movies trying to recall where they’ve seen that actor before, Shock Cinema is essential reading. Shock focuses on in-depth interviews with character actors from old Hollywood, new Hollywood, and cult films along with extensive reviews of obscure DVD releases and eclectic film books. Attractive and affordable, issue 51 includes interviews with Dabney Coleman and the king of the southern gothic deadpan reaction, Tracey Walter. It’s always a cover-to-cover read. In the age of high print costs and $12 movie mags, it’s a serious bargain at $5 an issue. –Billups Allen

Shock Cinema,
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Edgewater, NJ 07020

Upcoming Screening: Young Frankenstein

The Producers (1968) and Blazing Saddles (1974) honed one of the great Hollywood dream teams. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were in top form when Wilder’s pet project Young Frankenstein was due to be shot on a modest budget from a weary studio. The result is one of the greatest comedy spoofs. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) is a young scientist trying to separate himself from his grandfather’s legacy of wild experiments. On track to marry a wealthy socialite (Madeleine Kahn), Frankenstein is side tracked when he inherits his grandfather’s castle. There he meets the stern Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), the bizarre manservant Igor (Marty Feldman), and Inga (Teri Garr) his new assistant who often unintentionally distracts him from his engagement. Frankenstein’s surroundings and newfound associates drive him to madness and instill in him a desire to continue his grandfather’s infamous experiments.
Shot in black and white to imitate the look of the early Universal monster movies it pays homage to and with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled, Young Frankenstein has become a favorite of horror and comedy fans alike.

Young Frankenstein
Playing Saturday, January 28, 2017-7:00
AFI Silver Theater
8633 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Lucas’s Art Film: THX 1138

THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971) –

Weirdly, this was my first time seeing this film.**  It’s a movie that has hovered around the edges of my awareness, but I always sort of considered it a film for Star Wars complete-ists rather than as something whole and interesting in its own right.  And it is.  Whole, complete, and interesting in its own right.  Like all good sci-fi, it is very much a product of its time, using the speculative to meditate on what makes us human and explore contemporary anxieties.

I was surprised at how arty it was.  And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.  Rather I was struck by the visual beauty and vocabulary: You could clearly see Lucas’s debt to Bergman running throughout the film—not just in style, but thematically.


Also Godard’s Alphaville.





And of course the silver-faced robot of Metropolis.

There is a dedicated sparseness.  There is never extra exposition or explanations.  It mirrors the emptiness of the antiseptic world. Even the violence is bloodless—isolated in its white world.


Which makes the sensual and the fleshy so much more dramatic and embodied.


It’s not a complicated film, but it is adult.  And exceptionally well-versed in British post-war dystopian fiction: It is a mash-up of 1984 and Brave New World.  Everyone is heavily medicated and the medicine cabinet is the space of surveillance.  Sex is forbidden.

But Robert Duvall as the title character here seems to channel the raw intensity of De Niro’s Travis Bickel.

Or properly, it’s the other way around: THX was released in ‘71 and Taxi Driver in ‘76. In addition to their muddled revolutionary tendencies (one towards sex and one towards violence), they are shot with the same harsh profile shots and head on shots reminiscent of mugshots as much as anything, that provide a frame for alienation.

But the comparison is an intriguing one. Remarkably, Duvall was already 40 when THX was released.  De Niro was 32.  Their similarities can perhaps function as a metaphor for 70s New Hollywood more generally.  Very white. Very male. Very reactionary. And not as young as the mythos and their overly simplistic world view seems to suggest. At the same time, there is the fierce purity of the characters, and an actor-ly commitment to reality of those the characters, that is riveting.

It is certainly not a perfect film. The almost literal erasure of LUH, the sulkily luminous Maggie McCommie***, THX Luh.jpgis certainly problematic. It was all her. She is the one who set all of the action in motion. She falls in love, she does something about it. She is the revolutionary. And her pregnancy is a death sentence.. Not for her the escape into the sunset.  The last we see of her she is dragged naked out of the shared cell they are imprisoned in. And while THX certainly remembers her, and mentions her, the film decides she is not as interesting or as important as he is and gets rid of her.

I got a little lost in the prison/asylum.  Donald Pleasance as SEN, while eminently watchable, was confusing as a character in this world.  This isn’t aided by the fact that Lucas and Murch cribbed a bunch of his dialogue from Nixon.  We watch him watch THX and LUH on the monitors (a classic way to implicate us the audience in our own scopophilia). But he certainly isn’t the only character watching them.  Our vision of their connection is constantly fractured by monitors and shared by observers within the film.

But SEN seems to want to capitalize on their lawlessness. Or he desires it. If his stance is not a put-on, how did he get so far?  Is he sexually into THX? Or is he just weird? Paranoid? Crazy? He is certainly the most human seeming.  Awkward and strange. Even in the dystopian stripping of identity he shines through with personality.


(More echoes of Persona).

So if, as I posed, THX1138, like good sci-fi, is thinking about what makes us human and what makes us afraid, we can certainly come up with some strong-put ideas. What makes us numb, and the institutions that support it, should make us wary. Here, prescription drugs and television (masturbatory holograms), the stripping away of individuality, the homogenization of culture: these are what destroys us. Sex makes us human, love, the desire for human connection.

As I said, it isn’t complicated.  But it is effective.

As a final note, let me avow my undying devotion to Walter Murch.  If you don’t know the genius of this guy, its time you did.  And actually it was his name that pushed me over the edge into finally watching THX 1138.  This guy. Where do I even begin? The Conversation? Apocalypse Now? How about the sounds of light sabers in Star Wars.  Look no further than THX. It’s all there. And that is not even to mention that he’s the guy who brought Touch of Evil back to life from Welles’ notes.  This guy.  He pretty much invented sound design as a category.  And here, working with George Lucas, he brings something unique in his career: co-writing credit (although I credit him personally for a great deal of The Conversation). And I think he balances out Lucas’ tendency towards epic conflicts that tend to erase much nuance (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing! Star Wars provides a clear and abiding mythos (if borrowed) that vividly resonates with generations of audiences).

**My personal connection to the movie is locational.  Lucas shot a lot in Northern California and area is littered with places he shot. I lived in the Bay Area for a couple of years and spent more time than I like to remember going back and forth to Concord.  The Caldecott Tunnel became very familiar and almost inevitably my partner at the time would mention that THX 1138 was filmed in these tunnels. Which also may account for my delay in watching this film.caldecott I am not a fan of driving through tunnels in general.  It gives me a great deal of anxiety. Not so much the underground part, but the having no place to go part.  So altogether a set of useless associations that caused me to resist watching it.

***Clearly the inspiration for Robin Tunney’s look in Empire Records.



—Kathleen Murray