Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Truly Terrifying Tale

"I got somethin' planned for your wife and kid that they ain't nevah gonna forget. They ain't nevah gonna forget it, and neither will you, Counselor! Nevah!"

Max Cady (Robert Mitchum)

I actually saw the 1991 remake of "Cape Fear" before I saw the original, which made its debut on this day in 1962.

And I will admit that I was impressed (as well as a bit frightened) by the long menacing scene between Juliette Lewis and Robert De Niro. They were both very good in that movie, and that scene they did together was quite effective.

But all things considered I thought the version that premiered 55 years ago today was better. I reached that conclusion long before I learned that Alfred Hitchcock was originally supposed to be the director — and actually did the original storyboard for the movie — but quit the project over a squabble. Had I known at the time of Hitchcock's connection to the original project, I probably would have wanted to see that version first.

Even though he didn't end up directing the movie, Hitchcock's fingerprints were all over the finished work. Of that I am certain. The camera angles, the unusual lighting, the eerie Bernard Herrmann music that was so prominent in Hitchcock movies ("Psycho," "North by Northwest," "Vertigo"). All Hitchcockian touches.

The story was the kind of scenario that most prosecutors must fear in their waking moments — and possibly even after they fall asleep at night.

Gregory Peck played a lawyer in a small town who had to deal with the fact that a man he helped put in prison eight years earlier (Robert Mitchum) had been released. He had been convicted of attacking a woman, and now he was back in town, terrorizing Peck, his wife (Polly Bergen) and their young daughter (Lori Martin).

As good as De Niro was, Mitchum was the personification of menacing. In fact, in comparison, De Niro's performance was almost comical. Mitchum was truly terrifying. And the thing was he didn't really have to do anything — just stand there and stare.

If looks could kill.

The remake of "Cape Fear" had its good points, but it was chaotic in its story telling. As I say, the original was better. It was more focused, it was scarier, and its villain was more heinous.

I know people who won't watch the original because they don't watch black–and–white movies. They equate quality with flash and dash, with explosions and bright lights, all the bells and whistles of modern filmmaking.

And perhaps such people will never appreciate what black–and–white movies usually accomplished without all those bells and whistles.

They told good stories.

With Peck and Mitchum, "Cape Fear" clearly had a great cast, but it also featured some real talent in the supporting roles — Martin Balsam as the police chief and Telly Savalas as a private detective.

And, of course, Martin as Peck's daughter.

In the remake, there was a budding romance between Lewis and De Niro, but Martin never had an attraction to Mitchum. He terrified her.

And viewers could see themselves being protective of someone as young and innocent as Martin.

Of course, she wasn't the only one who needed protecting.

By the way, Peck, Mitchum and Bergen all appeared in the 1991 remake — but in different roles.

As hard as it is to believe in hindsight, "Cape Fear" was hardly a success at the box office, presumably because of its content — and it received no Academy Award nominations, presumably because the Academy usually prefers to reward feel–good movies, and "Cape Fear" was hardly a feel–good movie.

But don't let that keep you from seeing it.