(American, 1962, 105 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
CAPE FEAR is one of a dozen or so films noir (THE DESPERATE HOURS, THE STRANGER, STRANGE BARGAIN, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, THE WRONG MAN, ACT OF VIOLENCE) that bring noir’s dangers into the living rooms of the middle class. The night world of the film noir, where danger is ordinarily the sole property of lonely private eyes, oily nightclub owners, and lovers-on-the-run, here invades the sanctum of the American family. It is as if, in its later years, the vessel of noir’s wrath has overflowed, darkening the daylit streets and neat homes of the ‘ordinary’ American. After they collide with Cady, the Bowdens are changed by their knowledge of evil, for to know Max Cady is to know venality and the depths of human cruelty. Its not an encounter they can forget, and even Gregory Peck’s stoic integrity begins to show hairline cracks when Cady swaggers into his world. The Bowdens are forcibly carved away from the comforts of community by Cady, forced to fall back entirely on themselves for all their psychic needs.
Mitchum is a sinister monument to the incipient danger that lurks around every corner in film noir. It is no surprise that when Martin Scorcese remade CAPE FEAR in 1991, he found a place in a corner of the film for the still creepy, still potent Mitchum. Even from a spot on the sidelines, Mitchum, his massive body the same huge slab of beef it had been for forty years, could inflect the film with unsurpassable menace. Wisely, Scorcese had his new Max Cady, Robert Deniro, play the part as an outgoing loon, for no one could erase Mitchum’s contrasting portrayal of Max Cady as a man in whom mayhem lurks so deep that it refuses to show itself in his impassive, sad face. Mitchum had already played the Hamlet of film noir in OUT OF THE PAST, a character in whom motives are in constant conflict, seething just below the calm exterior. In CAPE FEAR, Mitchum plays a creature completely molded of evil. He is, as Keith Jarrett once said of Miles Davis, "pure intent." In OUT OF THE PAST, Mitchum is a man absolutely torn, and in CAPE FEAR, a man completely focussed; in the first, he is good struggling to be good, and in the latter, evil seeking to attain new Everests of cruelty. In these two very different films, Mitchum, the genre’s greatest exponent, spans the alpha and omega of the film noir. Together, these portrayals are a mural of the wretched corroded underside of the American Dream. Mitchum remains the perpetual outsider, doomed always to look in on the world of the normal, always to remain unclaimed by the happy, oblivious citizens of the American daytime. As he stalks noir’s dark streets, Mitchum is the death-haunted outsider we fear—and that we wonder if we shall become.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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