*. If you want to buy a copy of John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners today I don’t think you can, at least under that title. Since the release of this film it’s always been reprinted as Cape Fear, despite the fact that Cape Fear (the place) is never even mentioned in the book. Gregory Peck named the movie Cape Fear on a whim, because he found The Executioners “a turn-off.” He then figured that movies named after places (his example: Casablanca) usually did well. So he looked in an atlas for a catchy title and picked out Cape Fear. Cape Fear, the movie, didn’t do well, and put an end to Peck’s production company.
*. MacDonald deserves a great deal of the credit for Cape Fear though. A prolific author of popular semi-pulp fiction, in The Executioners he introduced what would become an archetypal plot: the civilized, law-abiding, suburban family that has to descend to some primitive state in order to defend itself from a mortal threat. Think of how many movies you’ve seen since that have taken the premise of “what would you do to protect your family?” and run with it. Wes Craven, to take just one example, found such a primal message irresistible, and made it the foundation for such early films as The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Since then, it’s been a horror staple running from home invasion to rape-revenge and beyond.
*. That progeny is worth taking note of, as Cape Fear strikes me as being not so much a crime drama or noir as a horror flick. Max Cady isn’t a noir bad guy but a psycho killer. Look at the way he slithers into the river like an alligator. And the way the suspense builds throughout is pure slasher cinema.
*. Did that all start here? I’m not sure, but MacDonald must have been one of the first to popularize such a story since the book was published in 1957 and it takes as its launchpad an idyll of 1950s American suburbia that Cady, a ghost from the war, has no place in.
*. To please the censors Cady is no longer an ex-soldier. I would have thought that the least of the things that would have bothered them. But apparently they were quite exercised by the film, and made a number of cuts. I’m surprised how much was left in. The way Cady rubs that egg onto Peggy (Polly Bergen) is almost pornographic. And of course, the scene where he stares at the 15-year-old Nancy (Lori Martin, who actually was 15) in her short shorts. “Getting to be almost as juicy as your wife,” he remarks to Sam. How did a line like that stay in? Censors complained that “there was a continuous threat of sexual assault on a child.” Well, yeah.
*. One reason may have been that so much is only implied, and Cady isn’t actually doing anything wrong. Which is, curiously, the same defence Cady uses to stay out of trouble with the law. And so the movie, like Cady himself, proceeds indirectly, with lots of sexual innuendo. Look at how Nancy runs away from that looming crotch in the school. Or that nasty-looking pole with a screw sticking out of it that Cady is wielding at the end.
*. On reading the book Peck immediately recognized that Cady was the stronger part if not the lead. Whoever played Cady would steal the picture from white bread, predictable Sam Bowden. Fun fact: To Kill a Mockingbird came out the same year as this film. And is Sam so different from Atticus Finch?
*. There are some changes to the book that work. The bowling alley scene is new. The houseboat at the end is invented, presumably to tie in with the title that Peck picked out of an atlas. In the book the climax takes place at the Bowden home, with Peggy being used as bait. Nancy is being kept safe somewhere else. Cady’s lust for the jailbait daughter is something played up far more in the movie, and developed even further in Scorsese’s remake.
*. Two other scenes that are added to the movie and not found in the book are worth mentioning. In the book Cady roughs up a prostitute who won’t testify against him, but this character is made into something more complex on screen. Diane says to him at one point: “Max Cady. What I like about you is that you’re rock bottom. It’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” This is an odd speech, and comes out of nowhere.
*. The other big change is the addition of the sleazy defence lawyer who represents Cady. There is no corresponding character in the book. His introduction also marks what may be a first. We recognize his type in a number of later movies: the liberal lawyer who enables criminals by manipulating the system and insisting on things like due process and rights. Dirty Harry was always butting heads with these guys. He’s stuck around, even though he disappears entirely from this movie without really serving any necessary purpose. Sam is a good lawyer, and in the end upholds the sanctity of the law. But we know that this degenerate suit is still waiting out there and is someone we have to be on our guard against.
*. Bernard Herrmann’s score comes on strong — too strong, in my opinion, over the opening credits when nothing is happening — and it’s a pity the rest of the production doesn’t live up to it. Scorsese knew what he was doing when he played it up even more and matched it with visual grandiosity. In this movie the biggest drag is J. Lee Thompson’s flat direction. I won’t call it uninspired, because it was quite determinedly inspired by Hitchcock, but it never snaps to life.
*. David Thomson preferred this film to the remake “because it is trash honestly done, whereas the Scorsese version is a tangled mess of violent urges and improving attitudes.” Here I’ll just address the point about trash honestly done. I think this is a nod to MacDonald’s unabashed populism and mythmaking. Peck, unlike Nolte in the remake, really is all that is good about America, while Mitchum is, as Thomson calls him, the Beast: primitive, bestial, elemental. He’s not a complicated man. As Diane says of him: “You’re just an animal: crude, lustful, barbaric.” For whatever reason, it’s a role that Mitchum seems to have enjoyed. He doesn’t often look like he’s enjoying himself on screen, but he is here.
*. Calling it trash is also a nod to the genre. This isn’t just a horror film, but a trashy horror film. A sleazy horror, but also a groundbreaking, seminal film that has left a large footprint. By itself you can see why Scorsese wanted to remake it.
*. It’s a movie that doesn’t entirely live up to that mythic or archetypal conception I’ve been talking about. This isn’t just because it was constrained by censors but because I don’t think Thompson really understood the size of what he was working on. That’s understandable, but Cape Fear is a big little movie, and one that hasn’t stopped growing over the years.