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'What It's Like To Be Wrong'
Cape Fear with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum
© 2013 James LaFond
I remember the Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear with Robert De Niro being a frightening movie for its time. When I found myself marooned with relatives this holiday weekend in a celebrity TV continuum and the listing for Cape Fear came up, I jumped on the chance and suggested some good old melodramatic brutality—anything to avoid another game show, reality show, or roller coaster documentary…
To my surprise and delight the movie was the 1962 original starring Gregory Peck as the harried lawyer and Robert Mitchum as the predatory and vengeful ex-convict. The movie was black and white and was based on the novel ‘The Executioners”. I have not read the novel, but based on its title and the content of the original movie, it was very far removed from the 1991 adaptation. For one thing the story line was much more complex, particularly as regards the relationship between the lawyer and the criminal.
As soon as I noticed that the social commentary and human-as-animal insights were more advanced in this 1962 production than in the 1991 remake, I grabbed a pen and paper and began taking notes.
A particular treat was seeing Telly Savalas with hair playing a sleazy chain-smoking private investigator, a part taken by Joe Don Baker in the remake. In general, the difference between modern actors and their earlier counterparts shows up in the lack of athleticism demonstrated by just about every old time actor other than Kirk Douglas. Gregory Peck has the voice of God and the left hook of Susan B. Anthony, and Mitchum isn’t much better in terms of physicality.
The acting was on par with the remake. The dialogue and storyline, which dovetailed into a brutal message, were much better. The central premise of the movie was the unalterable fact that no government that even pretends to respect human rights can protect its citizens from violent criminals. The local police chief sums it up nicely when he states that a man cannot be arrested for ‘what is in his mind’ or ‘what he might do’, and that the police can only pick up the pieces after the fact, otherwise it would be a ‘dictatorship’.
As it turns out the criminal is a brutal wife-beater/rapist with sadistic appetites, who the lawyer witnessed beating a woman on a trip to Baltimore, and later testified against. When the man is released after 8 years in prison he tracks the lawyer to his home town in coastal Georgia and begins a campaign of intimidation and stalking against the lawyer and his family. The Mitchum character eventually gives a chilling confession over a double of 12 year old scotch, which drives the lawyer and his wife to agree to a brutal final solution of their own.
This movie did not deliver the cheesy socially acceptable moral message that one would expect of the time. Indeed, as social commentary on our present dilemma as citizens in an increasingly predatory society, it proved much more conceptually advanced than the 1991 remake. It is telling how much a society forgets in 30 years.
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