Sunday, February 26, 2012

The People Against O'Hara (1951)

The People Against O'Hara is an MGM film noir starring Spencer Tracy.

MGM wasn't known for making noir, but the company did occasionally produce and release them. Some are fantastic: The Asphalt Jungle, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Side Street. The majority of their black-and-white crime thrillers (later to be known as noir) from the 40s and early 50s hit most of the notes required but are just a bit out of key. Cause for Alarm, The Lady Without a Passport, Scene of the Crime and The Bribe come across like a cover band - not the real thing. RKO and Warners were the studios that knew noir.

I'm happy to report The People Against O'Hara is (mostly) a film noir. It certainly looks like one. That's thanks to director John Sturges and (probably more so) director-of-photography John Alton. Alton - lensman for T-Men, He Walked By Night and Raw Deal - knew how to use light and shadow. Every scene in The People Against O'Hara has light coming from table lamps, Venetian-blinded windows... anywhere but from the ceilings. And they're all coming from low or sideways angles. The outdoor shots in New York City are chaotic, cluttered and strangely claustrophobic at times. The first five minutes of the movie showing the murder is all shadow - a blanket of dark. The light from a Brownstone doorway giving the only visibility of a shooting taking place across a city street.

Compare this movie to the independently-produced Vice Squad released a few years later. Vice Squad is so over lit it looks like a 50s Television show. Vice Squad suffers because of it. If it were shot by Alton - using techniques created in part because his lighting style was an inexpensive way to express tension - Vice Squad would probably be bearable. But it's not. It's one of many 50s Edward G. Robinson vehicles that just aren't very good. In my opinion, it's because of the way the film looks. But tough guy Edward G. Robinson belonged in crime thrillers. Tracy by the early 50s was carefully managed so he only appeared as a lovable family man. The People Against O'Hara was a bit of a stretch for him.

But only a bit.

Spencer Tracy - even though the film is peppered with fine supporting players and familiar noir faces - is the movie. It's all about him. It's a good thing he's so likeable because that may explain why everyone in the movie is trying to help him. It'd be hard to imagine anyone else in the part. He plays a lawyer - an indecisive drunk lawyer. And he pulls it off perfectly. Every player in the movie is pulling for him - the judge, the DA trying to prosecute his client, hell even the local bartender doesn't want him to fall off the horse. But he does. It leads to a ending that's not happy. Which was a welcome surprise and appropriately film noir as well.

It's also a bit refreshing to see the cops, DA and defense lawyers are all straight-as-an-arrow men out to serve justice honestly. And, again, it would all fall apart and probably cause lots of eye-rolling among noir purists if Tracy wasn't so convincing (it's clear that MGM pulled their punches many times in the script not just related to the DA's office, but Curtayne's drinking). The only shady dealings among lawyers is when Curtayne (Tracy) pays off a witness to change his testimony. But even that is forgiven because everyone knows Curtayne is just trying to do right by his young client - the O'Brien in the title (James Arness).

I enjoy spotting supporting actors in noir. This film has some good ones. Pat O'Brien, Diana Lynn, and John Hodiak all appear. But unlike Tracy are almost completely forgotten.

O'Brien was a big star during the 30s gangster days --along with Bogart and Tracy-- but as he aged he couldn’t continue to match his contemporaries on-screen charisma. Demoted to second or third billed in the 50s he is unmemorable in this. To see O'Brien shine during the second half of his movie career seek out the amazing Riffraff. RKO- a studio who could risk having a fading star in the lead.

Diana Lynn plays Tracy's daughter. She looks a bit like Gloria Grahame in this one. She's so well erased today the Internet Movie Database has the wrong picture of her on her IMDB page.

John Hodiak is good but not given much to do. The usually mustached actor is better showcased in Lifeboat, Two Smart People, Somewhere in the Night and The Bribe. I did mention The Bribe earlier as a bit of an off noir, but it IS featured in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. So there's that.

And the rest.
Pat O'Brien, Regis Toomey, and John Hodiak

Poor Regis Toomey (sans toupée) plays a radio operator for a couple of minutes. And they only shoot him from behind... in the dark. He was a cop in more noir than you could count - from cheap Bs like I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes to Warner Bros' The Big Sleep.

Eduardo Ciannelli (Dillinger, Johnny Staccato), Jay C. Flippen (They Live By Night) and Arthur Shields (The Verdict) play the rogue's gallery of ethnic stereotypes. Ugly in looks to be sure. Ciannelli is Sol 'Knuckles' Lanzetta, Flippen is Sven Norson and Shields is Mr. O'Hara. If you imagined what their accents would sound like you'd probably be right.  See if you can spot Emil Meyer and Charles Bronson too!

Warner Archive has just recently released the DVD and it looks fantastic.

Check out the trailer below. From the start - engraved cards on a silver platter “Mr. SPENCER TRACY... in His Valiant Struggle to Free an Innocent Man”- to its misleading gangbusters voiceover - makes it clear that MGM indeed didn't know how to market it in 1951. Today, let's just call it a decent film noir.


Written by Steve-O

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wanted for Murder (1946)

Taunting Strangler Hunted by Scotland Yard

Eric Portman grabbed attention during the early post-war wave of London cinema with two gripping performances as a killer. Each was done in a different way and the result was chilling performances amid taut suspense and audiences held spellbound.

The first performance was the 1946 film noir vehicle Wanted for Murder. Here was a killer who was a highly successful export-import magnate by day and a serial strangler of young London women by night. One year later in Dear Murderer Portman emerges as an embittered husband who murders to hang on to a faithless wife.

In the earlier effort Portman’s character Victor William Colebrook was distinguished by an aristocratic manner and a superiority complex on the one hand and a realistic acceptance on the other of a man who knows he is going mad and feels powerless to do anything about it. He writes taunting letters to the police and uses a pseudonym, chiding them for what he deems their stupidity and hopelessness in catching him in the manner of San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer one generation later.

Wanted for Murder utilizes London’s interesting scenery in such a manner that the viewer can think that he or she is part of an unfolding true life documentary. Portman is seen measuring his prey as the omniscient camera’s eye looms with a sense of inevitable doom. The killer measures his victims in the manner of British sporting gentry on a hunt.

The film is divisible into three brackets. One involves lovely and innocent Dulcie Gray searching for love. The other involves strangler Portman hunting and ultimately devouring female prey. The third relates to two determined Scotland Yard detectives. The stories intersect to reveal, in the midst of Scotland Yard’s manhunt to capture a serial strangler of women, a developing triangle with the killer vying for Gray’s love alongside a humble and thoroughly cheerful bus conductor played by Derek Farr, whose middle class affability is the direct opposite of the nattily attired, egotistical aristocrat-executive embodied in Portman. Portman will also become linked to Scotland Yard detectives Roland Culver and Stanley Holloway.

This British noir film lifts off in a manner predictive of the overall consistent and solid pacing under the deft hand of director Lawrence Huntington. Farr spots Gray in a crowded London Underground Train, recognizing her as a girl he admired when he frequently punched her ticket on the Number 13 Bus. When the train encounters technical problems Farr and Gray disembark. He walks with her to Hampstead Heath, where Gray tells Farr she will be meeting her boyfriend.

Portman’s initial scene with Gray reveals him at his most imperious. He is incensed by her being late for their meeting. He is impervious to her reasoned explanation of the London Underground problem. They meet in the midst of the Hampstead Heath Fair, where others are enjoying themselves. The joyous laughter of young women on a Ferris wheel prompts Portman to condemn with shouting disdain the silly masses in whose midst he stands. He proclaims urgent desire to leave immediately.

The next day we see the charming side of the aristocratic business executive as he alights from his office in London’s financial district. He buys a flower for himself from a lady vendor, which he places in his lapel, then purchases a full spray for his secretary. This side of Portman eases warmth and an outward layer of harmony as a man of comfort.

Not only is the big news about the murder that occurred at Hampstead Heath after Portman and Gray parted company. Scotland Yard’s chief officers pursuing the case, Roland Culver and able assistant Stanley Holloway, receive a taunting letter from the killer that they are bungling fools. Not only are the police being insulted, but the brazen killer adds ominously that there will be another young woman strangled that night in Regent’s Park.

The manner in which the story moves seamlessly amid all circumstances and characters involved represents a smooth script writing enterprise with one of its members among the premiere figures of the British cinema. Emeric Pressburger, partner of Michael Powell, had earlier written the 1943 hit The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The following year after Wanted for Murder debuted Black Narcissus would appear. In 1948 Pressburger along with partner Powell’s ballet film classic Red Shoes debuted. Wanted for Murder was adapted from a stage play written by Percy Robinson and Terence de Marney. Rodney Ackland collaborated with Pressburger on the screenplay with Maurice Cowan furnishing additional dialogue.

Wanted for Murder is reminiscent of the American film noir classic Laura, which debuted two years earlier in 1944, in that the two movies featured haunting musical theme songs. In the 1944 release the David Raksin song "Laura" was played throughout the film to heighten dramatic impact, an idea suggested by Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. In the British noir release two years later the same pattern was employed with one additional twist.

The young victim in the Regent’s Park strangling began singing the haunting Mischa Spoliansky song "A Voice in the Night" in a state of comfort, delighted that a man of Portman’s social and economic distinction is interested in her. At that point the serial killer planted his anxious fingers around her neck and choked her to death.

One of the visually arresting features of the film is the manner in which the camera presents London as a dangerous city by night in the midst of a string of murders of young women reminiscent of Jack the Ripper during the Victorian period. Cinematography was provided by Mutz Greenbaum, also known as Max Greene. The camera operates as an intelligent communicator of danger by night in the same manner that it heightened the fear presence of soon to become murder victim Richard Widmark in the British noir 1950 classic Night and the City. The connection is understandable in that Greenbaum-Greene was behind the camera in the latter film as well.

An interesting story element of Wanted for Murder is the cat and mouse confrontations between the Scotland Yard team of Roland Culver and Stanley Holloway and serial killer Portman. They directly interact after the killer dropped a handkerchief on Hampstead Heath the night of the murder. The meeting process begin as informational, but in time the determined police team becomes convinced that Portman is the killer, at which point he is followed with the objective of obtaining enough proof to apprehend and eventually hang him.

What has turned this affluent aristocrat into a strangler of women? It is revealed that Portman’s character, Victor William Colebrooke, had an infamous grandfather. William Colebrooke presided over legal public hangings during the Victorian era. He became so infatuated by the process that a statue likeness of him appeared in the chamber of horrors at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. The younger Colebrooke becomes so inflamed with rage after viewing the statue and listening to the history behind it that, after the guide and viewers vanish, he in a fit of rage shatters it. This circumstance is one of the clues that convinces Scotland Yard that Colebrooke is the strangler.

Barbara Everest as Colebrooke’s mother acknowledges that she has been overly protective of her son. Everest expresses regret over having married his father, someone she had to protect from violently acting upon dangerous impulses that lay close to the surface, observable from his facial expressions. It remained for the grandson to carry out those violent impulses through serial strangulation.

On one occasion a suffering Portman, with tears rolling down his cheeks, stands before Thames Embankment across the street from the well appointed flat he shares with his mother. Portman begs for release from the burden weighing heavily on his shoulders. He then crosses the street, enters his flat, and shouts at his mother. Her son announces that he is mad.

The brilliantly organized script culminates memorably. After Dulcie Gray tells Portman she is breaking off their relationship and that she loves Derek Farr, the crushed aristocrat, humiliated over losing the young woman he hoped to marry to a bus conductor, albeit one studying to become an engineer, arranges a final meeting.

With Scotland Yard aware that this meeting will occur at the entrance to Hyde Park near the famous Marble Arch, they move quickly to seal off the entire park after Portman enters it with Gray. After Farr becomes aware of what is happening he enters a scene in which Culver and Holloway endeavor to clear out busy Hyde Park.

So often in films that earlier deliver promise viewers suffer a letdown at the end. This is anything but the case with Wanted for Murder.

editor's note:  some spoilers in the video below

Written by Bill Hare

William Hare is the writer of Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style, Hitchcock And the Methods of Suspense, and L.A. Noir: Nine Dark Visions of the City of Angels. He's just wrapping up his latest book and should be out soon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tiger in the Smoke (1956)

Class and Patriarchy 
by Guy Savage
“I’ve been on the bash.”

If you’d like a glimpse of the London fog that helped cover the tracks of the notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper, then take a look at the British film, Tiger in the Smoke (1956), an excellent noir from director Roy Ward Baker. The film is based on the 1952 novel by the prolific crime author, Margery Allingham, and while it’s number 14 of the Allingham Albert Campion novels, no mention of Campion appears in the film.

The film is set in post WWII London. It’s November, late afternoon, and in terms of fog it’s a peasouper--fog so dense and thick that it’s difficult to see more than a few steps ahead. The film opens with a string of street musicians, 6 in all, walking in single-file through the crowded, noisy London marketplaces. One of them sits in an ad-hoc cart of sorts while another jiggles a collecting box on which the word “ex-servicemen” is written. While the musicians could be seen as just another element of local colour, their presence is seminal to the film.

The drama opens when a slim young woman, Meg Elgin (Muriel Pavlow) accompanied by her stuffy, bowler-hatted fiancé, Geoffrey Leavitt (Donald Sinden) pile out of a taxi and into the train station. Meg, a WWII widow, is about to marry the affluent Geoffrey, but over the last three months, she’s been receiving envelopes that include a photo of a man who appears to be her dead husband, Martin. Accompanying the last photo was a note telling her to meet Martin on the 3:23 Southend train on the 1st of November. Fearing blackmail, Meg and Geoffrey have contacted the police, and Chief Inspector Luke (Christopher Rhodes) and a handful of men are there to grab the man who may or may not be Martin. These initial scenes establish one of the film’s main themes: the clash of the parallel worlds of the so-called lower and upper classes.

As it turns out the man who claims to be Martin is an imposter--a man known as Duds Morrison (Gerald Harper). Duds is hauled off to the police station for questioning, and here it’s revealed that he’s a career criminal who was released from jail a few weeks previously. His last crime was robbery with violence committed with a thug known as Jack Havoc. Since Duds hasn’t yet done anything wrong, Chief Inspector Luke lets him go. Meanwhile Meg, who maintains a level of hysteria throughout the film, is bundled off back home to her father, the saintly Canon Avril (Laurence Naismith).

Geoffrey decides to do some sleuthing of his own, and so he follows Duds as he leaves the police station and offers him money if Duds will explain how he’s involved in these mysterious claims that Martin is still alive. After all Geoffrey has a vested interest in ensuring that Meg is a widow, and as far as the official records are concerned Martin is “posted missing presumed killed.” The spectre of the possibility that Martin is still alive is an issue that must be addressed given the flurry of photos Meg has received. Duds, however, refuses to cooperate and he appears to be terrified of something. He tears out of the pub, and Geoffrey loses Duds in the dense fog….

Meanwhile all hell is breaking loose in London with the escape of the homicidal maniac, Jack Havoc (Tony Wright). Havoc, doing time at Wormwood Scrubs, had convinced the warders that he’s a head case, and as the film plays out, it seems likely that Havoc didn’t need to try hard to pretend that he’s a nut-job. Havoc was attending an outside interview with a psychiatrist when he knifed the doctor and made a dramatic escape. Assistant Commissioner Oates (Alec Clunes) who knows Havoc well insists that Havoc timed his escape with the fog, but Luke remains skeptical. Oates argues that Havoc is one the three truly evil men he’s had the misfortune to meet in his lifetime, and that Luke will understand what he means when he meets Havoc.

Part of the film’s fascination can be found in its portrayal of patriarchy and hierarchy within British society which the plot shovels out at every turn. For example, there’s the patriarchy of the male-female dynamic in how the story deals with the idea that Meg may not have known her husband as well as she thinks she did. They were married for just three short months before Martin left for the war serving as a commando in France. For some time into the film, Chief Inspector Luke doubts Meg’s ability to recognize her own husband, in spite of the fact that they had an intimate relationship, but at the same time, he’s willing to accept the Canon’s argument that Duds cannot possibly be Martin. If Meg is insulted by the fact that Luke implies that she can’t be trusted to know her own husband while he takes her father’s word for it, any sign of umbrage never shows, and the film takes the fallibility of women as a matter of course. Luke concedes to ecclesiastical authority at several points in the film. According to the Canon, Martin was a “gentle man” whose only crime “was a so-called poem to his dog.” The implication, of course, is that cheap lower-class hood Duds couldn’t possibly be Martin--although there are some superficial similarities. So through this sequence we see that Luke isn’t convinced that Meg knew her husband as well as she thinks she did, but on the other hand, he’s willing to concede that the Canon’s opinion can be trusted. Other scenes show Meg in perpetual hysteria while the multiple males who surround her keep her in ignorance as to the facts or else try to talk her down.

Also evident is the hierarchy implicit in military structure extending to civilian life. This is largely seen in the scenes with the motley crew of mentally unstable street musicians who are willing to concede at least some authority and rank to Tiddy Doll (Bernard Miles), their tentative leader. Through the interactions between the street musicians, it becomes clear that WWII provided a cover of sorts for various nefarious activities for these petty hoods, but also now that the war is over, these largely disenfranchised human beings still cling to their uniforms and their medals as a means of survival and also as a disguise that marks prestige or merit.

The scenes that take place in the Canon’s house underscore both the patriarchal nature and the strict hierarchy of British society. The saintly Canon talks down to his female servant rather as he might talk to a naughty five-year-old, but the very best scenes in the house take place between the Canon and old “Cash-and-Carry,” the nefarious Lucy Cash (Beatrice Varley). Beatrice Varley, a British noir regular, steals the film in her role of a sly used clothing seller, one of the film’s two completely evil characters. One scene shows the Canon questioning Lucy Cash about a coat that went missing from his house, and with barely concealed hatred, Lucy manages to answer politely while every word shows both her disdain for the Canon and her bitter awareness of her perceived station in life. At one point the Canon dismisses her to the kitchen on an errand, and this small act indicates her social standing in the Canon’s eyes--she’s not a guest--she’s an underling, and this she acknowledges with the comment, dripping with sarcasm: “I don’t mind the kitchen. I did enough work there in your dear wife’s day.” Here’s the Canon on the pariah Lucy Cash:

“I’ve seen her walk down the street and window curtains tremble. Blinds creep down and keys turn in locks. She passes like a shadow.”

Lucy Cash’s involvement with Duds is implied rather than exposed, but perhaps the most revealing scene shows her hard-as-nails poker face with its charitable and implacable veneer when she’s faced with the bloody evidence of a violent crime.

In terms of a villain, reports of Havoc prior to his presence on the screen help to create an image of an almost superhuman character. He’s capable of the most fantastic feats, and he’s also remarkably cunning--planning his escape from prison to coincide with the dense fog for example. One of the striking elements of Havoc’s character is that he believes in the “science of luck,” and he is convinced that fate threw him together with Martin for a joint raid on Martin’s old home in Brittany. Not only does Havoc break out of prison but he also breaks into and then out of Meg and Geoffrey’s future home via the second floor window which overlooks spiked railings. The police are completely outfoxed by Havoc’s physical abilities, and when Meg recalls seeing a glimpse of Havoc, her impression is of “dark wings.” The implication is of course, of evil, and so the first real look at Havoc in the cellar where the street musicians live is inevitably a disappointment. Havoc is a fearsome creation--a homicidal maniac, yet the rumours and legends don’t quite match the real man who inevitably folds like a five-year old only to be conquered by his much-more intelligent ‘betters’.

In spite of its flaws, or even perhaps because of them, Tiger in the Smoke is well worth catching. It’s an engaging story which also yields excellent social commentary in its depiction of the parallel worlds of the lower and upper classes. Naturally the upper classes are good and intelligent while the crims lurk in the ‘lower’ classes and it’s the film’s rather naive supposition that crimes erupt in the crucible created by the proximity of these two parallel worlds. Note how, for example, the servants in the Canon’s house complicate life through the sale of Martin’s old jacket and also servant Will (Charles Victor) at one point even mickey finns the Canon’s milk. While Will acts with the best of intentions, the action results in placing the Canon in danger. The film effectively diminishes class problems into simplified class resentment, so that rather than showing the working class chafing at a generalized lack of opportunity, the film portrays the ‘lower’ class lusting for the valuable objects that belong to the upper class, and subsequently engaging in a criminal life of acquisition. The subconscious patronizing of the so-called ‘lower-classes’ and the implicit snobbery which runs throughout the film is also seen through the revelation that the ill-educated crooks cannot conceive of the true nature of the term "priceless” and will always go for something cheap and sparkly every time.

British cinema fans keep your eyes open for Stratford Johns in an early role as a police constable. There’s no mistaking that voice.

Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Cape Fear (1962)

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” - Aristotle
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly a decade after defense attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) acts as Good Samaritan by intervening in an attempted rape, perpetrator Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) tracks him to Savannah, Georgia and begins to deal out long-awaited retribution on Bowden’s family. As Cady carefully navigates the ever-thinning line between licit and illicit, Bowden becomes increasingly vulnerable to crossing criminal boundaries in order to protect his wife and daughter. The threat of the stable family unit by outside forces is a common motif in the noir genre, but never did the threat feel as tangible as it did in Cape Fear. An unpretentious film, it was received as coarse and vulgar in its time, yet it provokes a visceral reaction from the viewer as it questions the supposed usefulness of societal law.

The making of Cape Fear was put into motion by Gregory Peck, who also acted as producer through his motion picture company, Melville Productions. While his production house may have been named after a respectable author, Cape Fear’s origin was pulp - the touchstone of film noir screenplays. Though author John D. MacDonald was a graduate of Syracuse and Harvard universities, the Second World War derailed his life, and once discharged he found himself penning short stories for even shorter stacks of cash. Thanks to a booming crime novel market MacDonald was well-known by the time he wrote The Executioners, which eventually fell into the hands of Peck. Under the impression that films with geographical titles did well at the box office, Peck ran his finger down the Eastern Seaboard until he hit the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In short order, Peck assigned himself the role of Sam Bowden and handed Cady’s reigns over to drinking partner Robert Mitchum.

Peck looked no further than his last director, J. Lee Thompson who had earned himself an Academy Award nomination with The Guns of Navarone. Cape Fear would be Thompson’s sole expedition into noir territory, but he was enthusiastic about conveying the film’s sense of threat and carnal undertones. Director of Photography Samuel Leavitt had little more experience with the genre. When all was said and done, his offerings were slightly dubious noirs like Johnny Cool, Crime in the Streets, and The Crimson Kimono. Yet Leavitt absolutely understood how to film chiaroscuro; after all, he took home the Oscar for black and white cinematography for Anatomy of a Murder and The Defiant Ones. Leavitt elevates Cape Fear from thriller to noir with his careful attention to shadows and light: he and Thompson shoot Mitchum behind a blur of black wrought-iron, with shadows of bar glasses gleaming on his naked back, and the sheen of sweat and black blood glistening on his skin.
“Hello, Counselor. Remember me?” - Max Cady
Max Cady has spent the last eight years, four months and thirteen days (roughly) with one thing on his mind: revenge against the man whose interference put him behind bars. Or, more accurately, Cady has spent his incarceration learning the loopholes in criminal law so he may legally terrorize Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen), and teenaged daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). The film follows Cady as he plagues the Bowden family unit, but always outside the long arm of the law. There are no witnesses when he poisons the family dog. And if he’s outside Nancy’s school or leering at her on a boat dock? Well, a man has a right to be in public places, does he not? Not without resources, Bowden pulls a few strings and asks police chief Dutton (Martin Balsam) to roust Cady or dig up some warrants - but he’s clean. “You show me a law that prevents crime. All we can do is act after the fact,” Dutton complains. When the chief somewhat scornfully suggests a private detective, Bowden hires Charlie Sievers (played by a positively hirsute Telly Savalas) and Bowden is finally given something he can work with. Sievers follows Cady and finds that he has picked up and brutally beaten a young woman named Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase.) However, it is Cady who is sending a message to the counselor: he’s hurt and scared the young woman so badly she refuses to press charges or make a statement. Cady’s threat to her looms so large that she flees the city in the middle of the night. Bowden and his wife, Peggy, understand now that this is what Cady means to do to Nancy. It’s not the act that is important to Cady; he wants Bowden to think about an attack on his daughter for the rest of his life.

The denouement of the film is particularly tense and almost wordless, and Bowden’s indecision about his own capabilities and the practicality of law are neatly tied up. After a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse through swampland, Bowden has Cady lined up in the sights of his revolver but does not pull the trigger. He dooms him to spend the rest of his life in jail and restores his own faith (if not so much the audience’s) in justice.
“You just put the law in my hands and I’m going to break your heart with it.” - Max Cady
Although the ending of Cape Fear stops short of the anticipated slaughter of Max Cady, the film goes beyond B-grade horror by doing an effective job of exploring the uneasy introspection of the its hero. While Cady patiently bides his time in the murky grey waters of the law, Bowden becomes positively mired in it. He’s a man who has built the foundations of his life in the black and white world of right and wrong only to discover that a he cannot use logic to solve an illogical problem. The core struggle in the film is not whether Bowden will stop Cady’s reprisal, but whether he will give up the known truths in his life to operate outside societal rules. Sam Bowden never quite makes the transition into full-fledged noir anti-hero. Though he constantly questions the law’s ability to protect upright citizens, he only dips his toes into the criminal cesspool when he hires thugs to rough up Cady after Diane Taylor’s assault. After the thugs are neatly dispatched by Cady, Bowden waits for imminent threat to his wife and daughter before he takes personal responsibility; he’s only willing to bloody his knuckles within the confines of the laws he stubbornly clings to.
“Max Cady, what I like about you is you’re rock bottom. I don’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” - Diane Taylor
Draw a line in the sand, because the debate for Mitchum’s best villainous role is about to begin. Watch these Cape Fear scenes back to back: Cady’s soliloquy on the reckoning of his ex-wife, the aroused phone call he makes after he’s worked over by a chain, and the treatment he gives Peggy Bowden on the houseboat. Mitchum’s accolades for his work in Charles Laughton’s delirious The Night of the Hunter are deserved, but his character is not as authentically depraved as Cady. Yes, preacher Harry Powell surely is a devil of a man, but his performance there is somewhat tempered (through no fault of his own) in the dreamlike mise-en-scène. Powell’s ruse of posing as a preacher renders Mitchum’s performance just the tiniest bit hammy - though no less fun to watch. However, Powell is like a character in a nightmare the audience can wake up from. Max Cady’s foundation is realism; you find him not in your nightmares, but in your local tavern.

Inevitably, what made Cady such a great noir baddie caused great concern for the censors: he stares unabashedly at a scantily clad adolescent and slowly smears raw egg across a woman’s décolletage. Mitchum doesn’t walk in this film, he oozes. During the climax he slithers into the swamp like a cottonmouth. Any perceived slight gives Cady the motivation for savagery, and he wallows in the fun of it. Though censors had grown more lenient since the inception of the Hays Code, they were still vigilant with respect to two issues. Gone was Max Cady’s past as American Government Issue. In the past, noir films had gotten away with the unstable soldier issue by giving characters a good case of shell shock or amnesia, but Cady goes through life as a psychotic rapist, unchallenged by the Army or prison. Gone too, is the real reason Cady focuses on Bowden’s daughter. The original attack the good counselor tried to prevent was not on a woman, but a fourteen year-old girl. Cady finds a certain humor and justice in despoiling Bowden’s adolescent daughter. While British censor John Trevelyan lopped six minutes of Cady’s degenerate behaviour off the UK version, American censors gave Thompson a little more leeway with his film. Good thing, too: his portrayal of Bowden’s antagonist is the driving force behind the film and Cape Fear would fall flat with a tamer villain.

Cape Fear is a transitional film, one of the last that can claim noir roots. If its predecessors were thoughtful noir films like Act of Violence, then Cape Fear ushered in the era of psychological horror along with Psycho. It was not well-received by audiences despite the release of Hitchcock’s film two years prior. It came up about one million dollars short of production costs. “What on earth is Gregory Peck doing in such a movie?” The New Yorker wondered, calling it “A repellent attempt to make a great deal of money… out of sexual pathology.” Indeed, Cape Fear would be the last film put out by Peck’s Melville Productions. But in Hollywood everything old becomes new again, and when Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear as an homage to Thompson’s film, Peck received a rather late return on his investment and a new audience was introduced to Max Cady. While Robert DeNiro’s Cady is fun to watch, it is Mitchum’s performance that has stood the test of time. Cape Fear is ageless: still unapologetic, still chilling, still raising relevant questions. Watch this one at night with the lights turned low and raise the volume for Bernard Herrmann’s disconcerting hymn to depravity.


Written by Nauga

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