Monday, March 01, 2004

Cape Fear

(originally published March 1, 2004)

Among the films Larry lent me in this last batch were the original version of Cape Fear (dir. J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Polly Bergen) and Pedro Aldomovar's film from two years ago, Talk to Her. I watched both of them over the weekend. I'll talk about Talk to Her tomorrow.
I liked Cape Fear very much. Mitchum, as Cady, the recently-released criminal seeking to exact revenge on the man whose testimony had him convicted, is really slimey; and if the veiled references to his demeanor off-camera are any indication, he didn't have to do much actual acting. Peck is his mark, and he, as you might imagine, plays the role of good guy well. Yet, Peck's character, because of Mitchum's stalking, is driven by darker impulses borne of fear to consider (and, in the hiring of the thugs to beat up Mitchum, to act on) decidedly un-heroic actions. Thus, in his going against the grain of his good-guy image, Peck reminds me a great deal of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.
Speaking of which: This film owes much to Hitchcock's style--and it doesn't hurt to have Bernard Herrmann (the composer responsible for Vertigo and Psycho's soundtracks) doing the music. In an interview included on the DVD, Thompson notes that before shooting the movie he watched a lot of Hitchcock's films, since he (Thompson) said he hadn't had much practice filming one. One of Hitchcock's tricks for building suspense is shooting scenes in such a way that the audience is placed in the position of the victim. We don't know what's going to heppen either. A simple trick, but a most effective one, and Thompson uses it throughout his film.
Scorscese's remake is, as Thompson notes, actually an updating more than a full-blown re-conceiving of the story. The remake even keeps much of the soundtrack. I think, though, that the original is more intense, deeper in its building of dread: because censors said that under no circumstance could there be an overt suggestion that Cady intends to have sex with the daughter of Peck's character, and because they could not use the word "rape" in the film, much is literally unspeakable and it becomes the audience's job to speak those things, to read between the lines. Film is more effective when the audience is asked to do some of the work: Cady's "description" of how he brutalizes his ex-wife after he's freed from prison isn't actually much of a description, but we hear the words and look at the person saying them, and that's enough to create real horror in our minds. We cringe, and yet we've not really heard anything.
Tomorrow's topic: Talk to Her, and a reflection on the difficulties of talking about modern art by using words.

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