My husband and I went to see the 1962 version of “Cape Fear” last night at the Joy Cinema in our little suburb. I insisted we go, because I’d confused this “Robert Mitchum is a killer on a river” movie with “The Night of the Hunter,” another “Robert Mitchum is a killer on a river movie” that I saw at the Crystal Theater in Missoula, Montana in 1978. Perhaps my confusion is understandable after a gap of time like that, except I saw the Scorsese “Cape Fear” in the nineties and I should have known better.
This movie is dark and suspenseful and definitely worth seeing. Mitchum leans in as a baddie who is bad. Why is he bad? Because he’s BAD, I tell you. He’s a bad man who does bad things for one reason and one reason only; because he’s BAD. (Side note: I wrote two villains like this into Love & Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, and though I forgive my one-dimensional characters at that point in my writing journey, and in this over-the-top book, I still giggle when I talk about BAD villains with my friend Shannon.)
Mitchum is horrifying, brutal, hypnotizing, magnetic as Cady. He’s also overtly sexualized. They strip search him at one point, and there he is with a man’s body, tan and hairy, broad-shouldered and holding in his stomach. I watched Jimmy Stewart change his pajamas in “Rear Window” not that long ago, and he looked nothing like this. It’s interesting to consider a time when an actor didn’t hire a personal trainer and work out six hours a day for six months before he took off his shirt on camera, as is expected today.
While Cady stalks the lawyer’s family in the city, the trappings of urban life keep him slightly at bay. He’s unavoidable and somewhat containable in town. He’s also vile, sexy, fearless. His implacable menace is terrifying. Did they not have stalking laws and restraining orders in 1962? I believe they did not, and this is what it looked like.
As bad as Cady is in town, once he gets to Cape Fear, Cady is in his element. There’s a moment when he takes off his shirt and crawls through the undergrowth to the riverbank, where he extends his upper body out over the water and waits, watches, smiles. That moment before he drops soundlessly into the water is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. He’s an alligator on his way to get his prey and roll it in the water until it drowns. I wish he could have played Gator Rollins. He is something.
But the 1962 version of Cape Fear contains another performance that surpasses Mitchum’s. And it surpasses this performance with some of the worst acting I have ever watched in my life. We are talking astonishing, vigorous, howlingly awful acting.
No, I’m not talking about Lori Martin, who looks so teensy and pert next to Peck, like a gymnast. She’s just fine as one of the frightened women who run around being terrorized (Polly Bergen is the other). And yes, Gregory Peck does his usual wooden portrayal of an upright man in this movie. He’s best when he stays in his lane as a morally rigid and very correct character. He does that here. I leave it to you to decide if he was really as good as he’s supposed to have been, because I find him reassuring and handsome and not much more. But his acting is not the bad acting in question.
No, I’m talking about Barrie Chase as Diane Taylor. Diane Taylor is an aimless young woman who lets Cady pick her up (in a bar that looks really fun by the way). She takes him back to her place and sleeps with him. I think. I mean, I am just not sure of the sequence of events because she is so incredibly, profoundly, confusingly bad in this role.
She has four scenes, and she’s fantastically awful in three of them. In the first, she’s flirting with Cady from across a crowded bar. Sometimes she looks like she’s giving him the come hither, and sometimes she looks like she knows him and is terrified, and sometimes she looks sneeringly disinterested. None of her expressions make any sense at all, especially considering the action that follows.
Because in the next scene, she’s in a car with him, all cuddled up, and languidly talking about the comfort a girl feels when she realizes she’s gone as low as she can possibly go by picking up someone like Cady. I thought this scene was fine. But in the next scene, we see Cady coming into her room (shirtless, of course), and she’s sprawled in her tossed bed in some really sexy black lingerie.
Clearly they have had sex, yes? Or wait, are they just about to have sex, have they not had the sex yet? But he looks at her, and she looks at him, and some strange thing is going on, another inexplicable interaction. She looks as confused as I feel.
He’s clearly up to no good, flexing his fists, malevolent, ready to pounce. But her? What is all that expression about, all that screwing up of her face? Is she scared? Is she hopeful? What’s going on? Is she just tired? Because she’s lying there in what appears to be a post-coital haze. Or is she drunk and waiting? Does she realize it’s going to be terrible and violent at that point? Or has it already been terrible and this is more? Is she surprised, is she scared, what is she trying to tell us with this array of unreadable and bizarre expressions?
She recoils, the doors close and noises of a violent nature begin. We are left to our imaginations as to what horrors are happening, which is, I think, one of the goals of this movie: to eroticize women’s fears, incarnating them in smoldering, terrifying, unstoppable Cady. Mitchum carries that load like a pro.
But we are not done with Barrie Chase as Dianne Taylor, not yet. There is one last scene where Telly Savalas and Martin Balsam (a private detective and police chief, respectively) come to her room. Savalas’s character has been tailing Cady, and follows him to this young woman’s rooming house, but doesn’t go up there until after Cady has had time to have sex with/maybe not have sex with/ subsequently (or maybe not subsequently) brutalize a young woman/escape out a fire escape, I guess. She’s huddled by the bed, and the scene that follows is a masterwork of terrible acting. I mean, you really need to see it to appreciate the reveal of her injuries, the head tossing, the stalking about, the phone call, the dramatic packing, the strange tones of voice and again, the utterly inexplicable facial expressions.
I wished we were watching this at home instead of in a theater so I could have laughed out loud. But sitting in a darkened theater with other patrons restrains me, which keeps me focused on the movie, rather than letting me hit pause so I can ask if that actor was in something else, or get a drink of water, or bother my husband to the point where the thread of suspense is broken.
As we left the theater, I was talking about Mitchum. But all this morning, I’ve been thinking about Barrie. So there it is. It’s wonderful to see movies again, and perhaps next, we will see one filmed in the last couple of years.
Shout out to the Joy Cinema!