Cape Fear (USA, 1962)

Cape-Fear-PosterDirected by: J. Lee Thompson. I had always meant to see this one, so now I can scratch this off my list of canonical classic Hollywood that a guy like me has to see. I had pretty blank expectations going into this, and now that I’ve seen it, this movie kind of surpassed my expectations and fell short of them at the same time. Or, to be exact, the extremely uncomfortable, relatively unflinching subject material of violence and rape and the use of the law to break the law, all of that complicated stuff, is extremely mature, and way more mature and dark and unflinching than a young whipper-snapper like me would give credit to 1962 audiences for. Seriously, this thing is fucking disturbing…and it was made in 1962! We like to pat ourselves on the back every time a modern HBO show says the world “fuck” a hundred times, or every time a naked breast comes on screen in an episode of Game of Boners, but this was 1962. They couldn’t say “fuck”, and they still gave a very life-like, complicated story that stews in the dark, uncomfortable recesses of modern life. I’d like to see anything modern hit on that within a fucking thousand miles of relevancy. Mitchum here is at his absolute best, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing this (not even DeNiro, though I will totally see the Scorsese remake now). It’s really cool seeing Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas do their thing, even though they don’t get to sink their teeth into an awful lot of stuff. But, I have to be honest, Gregory Peck just doesn’t seem to do a very good job in this movie. His role is certainly the side-man to Mitchum’s devilish lead, but even so, his acting just seems very frozen, the facial expressions seem very put on, the line delivery very stunted, like he’s reading lines from a script. Maybe I’ve just gotten so used to modern acting styles, and Mitchum’s acting was maybe ahead of his time, because as far over the top as he goes in this, he always makes it believable, and terrifyingly so. But for all my praise, I did have some reservations. Even while this film was building up and building up and dealing with something as heavy as the threat of child rape (!), the whole character of Sam Bowden, the do-gooder everyman lawyer, just seems abnormally stunted and lethargic and dim-witted. From the very first fucking confrontation in the parking lot, when Max Cady makes a crack about his wife and kid and how good looking they are, I’m immediately thinking: “Restraining order, he’s threatening you, can’t you make that stick?” Instead he fucking hems and haws for 40 minutes until the boat scene where Cady is explicitly ogling his 12-year-old daughter and repeats what a good looking wife and kid he has, and Gregory Peck does an exaggerated, dummy double-take, and THEN he gets it, and then he gets angry, etc. What a fucking dummy! Right off the bat, when Mitchum is pulling in the lawyer and strategizing, etc, no mention is made of threats made to his family, no effort to impose a restraining order. Maybe they didn’t have restraining orders in 1962? I don’t know, but it’s frustrating.

And, finally, the fucking ending. Give. Me. A. Fucking. Break. The last minute and a half of this movie is the weakest, most half-assed, rushed, compromise Hollywood ending I’ve fucking seen. They’re having an incredible, dirty, knock-down drag-out fight to the death in the middle of the swamp, and instead of shooting the bad guy, the good guy is just standing there with a pistol, telling him how he’s going to spend the rest of his life in jail. Oh! Okay, so you’re just going to magically transport this dangerous killer back to the city somehow, you’re going to suddenly make the law function properly (even though the whole conflict of the film is showing how the machinery of justice doesn’t work in a straightforward way like that), and we can forget about the disbarring procedures against the good guy. And then, a fade, and a shot of the three family members, traumatized, but alive and well, in a boat, being carried away to safety, and then the credits roll. That’s it? Is that the sheriff’s boat? The fucking phone line didn’t connect to the sheriff, remember? He’s got the gun trained on the bad guy, orating loudly about how he’s going to use the law to put Cady away, and Cady’s face is sad because he’s just beat…but they’re still stranded in the fucking swamp in the middle of nowhere, and nobody knows that they need help. I thought Telly Savalas would come back and at least provide a little deus ex machina, but this is double deus ex machina—there’s not even a machine, it’s just God that swoops down and makes everything okay, and then the credits roll before you have time to digest how poorly the whole thing ended. So, yeah, hopefully the Scorsese remake will improve on the ending, even though, due to its “modern” production, it won’t have that juicy, middle-Hollywood ambiguity to it, but oh well.

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3 responses to “Cape Fear (USA, 1962)

  1. Pingback: In the Heat of the Night (USA, 1967) | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: The Guns of Navarone (USA/UK, 1961) | Offhand Reviews·

  3. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

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