From Wartime Melbourne to Cape Fear

Gregory Peck wanted to make Cape Fear. Impressed with a best-selling crime novel, The Executioners, he had his production company purchase the option to film it. Peck intended to play the main character, Sam Bowden, a war veteran with everything going for him: he has a young family, a comfortable semi-rural home, a good job with a small legal firm. This echoed Peck’s acclaimed role in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), but there is a twist. All is threatened by an ex-convict who comes gunning for the lawyer.

Sy Bartlett, Peck’s business partner, agreed to produce the film and began organising. Meanwhile, Peck undertook to get a proficient director. He approached Lee Thompson, who had impressed him on The Guns of Navarone by running a tension-free set while filming at a steady pace. “Greg gave me a novel to read,” Thompson recalled. “It was The Executioners, and said he would like me to direct the film—in Hollywood.”[1]

This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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Bartlett had stipulations when meeting Lee Thompson. He wanted the movie made as a Hitchcock-style thriller. Thompson, who had started in movies by working at Elstree Studios on Alfred Hitchcock’s staff, assured the producer he could, and would, pastiche the master’s approach, from camera angles and lighting through to how danger was visualised.

The producer swiftly gathered appropriate talent. For instance, he signed for the role of police chief Martin Balsam, who had played a detective in Psycho only months before. Bartlett’s key recruitments were for the production crew. He had secured Robert Boyle as art director, George Tomasini to edit the film, and Bernard Herrmann to compose a score.[2] They were members of Hitchcock’s recurring staff, having worked on The Man Who Knew too Much, Vertigo, North by North West and Psycho among other films. Bartlett and Thompson had them handle this thriller in the same manner, applying touches Hitchcock always stipulated. This is why what are often thought of as his “auteur’s fingerprints” appear on Cape Fear.

Still, it became a better movie because of its departures from the Hitchcock formula. Like Thompson’s insistence on filming in black-and-white. There was getting to be a sumptuous extravagance to Hitchcock’s palette. Where other directors stuck with razzling Technicolor brightness, he composed colour with a subdued tastiness, sometimes using Eastmancolor stock, which offered luminous secondary hues. This could amount to a formal contrivance, contributing little to the film’s overall meaning. The exception was Psycho, which employed black-and-white to revive the tonalities of his 1940s movies. Hitchcock deservedly received immense praise for this. It showed him as a better visual craftsman when using monochrome. Cape Fear, which was shot the following year, employed those same cinematic values.

Another departure was in the female lead. Peck felt they needed an actress who could embody the contented Eisenhower 1950s.[3] So he and the director veered away from Hitchcock’s customary blonde beauty who doubles as a fashion model, each scene seeing a costume change in stylish frocks. Peck wanted an attractive, but not glamorous, actress who could pass as a real suburban wife and mother. Tawny-haired Polly Bergen landed the demanding role, which she performed to domestic perfection.

Nor was the movie to be a travelogue, taking us across several scenic locations. The novel’s author John D. MacDonald wrote mostly West Coast detective stories, although his setting this time was deliberately vague: New Essex, a sort of everytown midway along the East Coast. Peck suggested they anchor the film culturally in a region Hitchcock avoided—America’s South. They also needed a palatable title. So Peck ran his finger along a map of the coast, looking for a suitable name.[4] That is how they landed upon the Cape Fear River in North Carolina for the movie’s title and nominal setting.

Dramatically, Cape Fear inverts the revenge tragedy. This genre follows a wronged noble (Prince Hamlet, Don Hieronimo, Daniel de Bosola) who violently gets his own back on a duplicitous evildoer. All is underpinned by the protagonist’s, and audience’s, certainty that justice is being served. In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama the play ends with moral order re-established at the cost of several lives, including the revenger’s.

Cape Fear up-ends this equation. Max Cady, a rapist released from prison, seeks revenge against Sam Bowden, the witness whose testimony secured his conviction. This runs counter to the genre’s rule of a deep wrong needing to be rectified; because what has occurred was just. Cady committed a serious crime then was formally tried in a court of law. And, far from being motivated by greed or malice, Bowden is an honest lawyer, a hard-working agent of justice in the community. Then there is the form this violent revenge takes. Cady intends to rape again, and he has his eye set on Bowden’s wife and fourteen-year-old daughter.

There were instant tensions at the Hollywood censor’s office over the script. Staff there were always nervous about any suggestion of rape in a film. Lee Thompson found himself on the defensive:

In those days you had meetings with Jeffrey Sherlock, the censor. He looked at the script and said, “There are areas that are dangerous. There must be no suggestion that Cady is really out to rape the girl. And you must be careful of the violence.” But that was the story. Cady was going to rape the girl and sexually abuse her, that was the threat he was holding over Sam Bowden.

So Thompson looked closely at the script, very closely. He would use the word assault for rape in the dialogue, but otherwise he wanted no changes. He thought over how sexual violence might be depicted, and where the camerawork could be suggestive.

This is why when teenaged Nancy flees from Cady into a school ground, the camera fixes on the dark bars of the school’s cast iron fence. There is no avenue of escape. Likewise, when Cady prepares to assault the semi-naked Diane Taylor in her bedroom, the camera again watches the trapped woman through the cage-like bars of a brass bedstead.

Gesture is also used most evocatively. Before raping Diane, the bare-chested Cady holds up his muscled arm and flexes his hand, pumping it into a solid fist as she shrinks back in fear. Sexual menace is palpable. Later still, having broken into a houseboat, Cady stands against Peggy Bowden, who wears a low-cut summer frock, then he breaks a raw egg on her upper chest and smears it across her bare skin, letting the gooey contents run over her bust.

“It was a tight rope that we walked,” Thompson explained, although the film “became even more chilling because it was suggestive, rather than having it out in the open.”

Shifting the story to the South enabled an average thriller to take deeper cultural meanings. Much of the movie was shot in Universal’s sound studios and Hollywood back lot, but the film crew spent four weeks on location in Savannah, Georgia, working around balmy streets, leafy parks and a county court. A Colonial Revival mansion with broad Plantation-style garden was found for exteriors of the Bowden family’s home, and river scenes had a suggestion of bayou. Actors were attired in cotton frocks, light suits, open-necked shirts and Panama hats. There were glimpses of Negro servants, while a Confederate flag hung limply in a shadowy bar. These were easy touches to establish setting.

It was up to the screenwriter James Webb to devise a taut script suggesting a Southern social dynamic. Where the character of Sam Bowden is a hard-working pillar of his community, Max Cady is a brute with a bad attitude. Cady’s days are spent loitering around town, while his nights are mapped by bars where he hunts for sex. This rootless drifter, who relishes eyeing off women, and gives cheek to police, seems always to have at hand a beer or an outsized cigar.

At first appearance, the novel on which Cape Fear was based described Cady as a racial degenerate: “Dark hair grew low on his forehead. Heavy mouth and jaw. Small eyes set in deep simian sockets.”[5] Later we hear details of an underclass background: “The Cadys are old stock. Hill people,” a detective explains.[6] Natives of Brountown, West Virginia, the seat of Appalachian poverty, crime is second nature to them. The father was a moonshiner with a bitter temper, always in and out of prison. Having taken a mentally-defective teenager for his haggard wife, Cady senior sired a litter of lawless sons. His eldest was killed in a running gun battle with the federal agents. The next oldest, while serving a life sentence for murder, was killed in a prison riot in Georgia. Then came Max:

He’s one of the violent ones. They don’t think the way people do. He was headed for jail whether he got caught on that rape charge or not. People like that have no comprehension of right or wrong. Their only thought is whether or not they’ll be caught. Anything you can get away with is worth doing.[7]

None of this was used for the screenplay. Instead, the figure of Max Cady throughout the film is entirely carried by how Robert Mitchum acted the part.

Casting the Cady role had taken some enterprise. Rod Steiger coveted the part, and his agent kept calling daily. It went on for weeks.[8] But Peck and Thompson really hoped for Mitchum due to his work in The Night of the Hunter (1955). In that thriller the seasoned Hollywood tough guy had played Harry Powell, a cold killer and former jailbird, who grifts and bullies his way through Depression-period West Virginia by masquerading as a hellfire preacher. It was a dark role and, according to Mitchum’s biographer, the actor was always proud of that performance.[9] However, he was in high demand with a busy schedule, and several directors were making overtures; then Peck and Bartlett sweetened their offer with a lucrative share in Cape Fear for Mitchum’s own production company. So he signed on.[10]

All went well with pre-production, then the crew commenced filming on location. Mitchum changed as soon as they reached Georgia. He became short-tempered and brittle. This aggression spilled into his acting. Several people asked if something was wrong. The actor explained that during the Depression, when roaming the United States in his late teens, he had been picked-up for vagrancy then sentenced to a week’s hard work on a chain gang.[11] This occurred in Chatham County where they were now. It was a rough introduction to the effects of poverty, deprivation and violence. “Bob felt a bitterness against the whole place,” Thompson recalls, “against the whole community. He had a big chip on his shoulder. So he was explosive there, always ready to explode, which was great for the picture—I didn’t try to stop that.”

Robert Mitchum’s volatile performance changed cinema. The director and scriptwriter helped him shape Cady as a psychologically accurate brute. Extra lines were added, strengthening his character and making the menace mirror real bullying behaviour.[12]

This is evident in how Cady progressively treats women. It starts in the first scene where a female clerk drops a bundle of files. Cady walks by, not halting to help. Later in that scene he does stop to watch when an attractive woman crosses the street. His macho nastiness builds quickly. Cady makes obscene suggestions to a shocked waitress in a bowling alley. Then, at a marina, he leers at fourteen-year-old Nancy, calling her “juicy”. (Fearful that Mitchum’s facial expression was too lascivious, the censor considered cutting this shot.[13]) Half an hour into the film, there is no doubting that the uncouth Cady views women with contempt. Then comes a conversation with Bowden, where Cady boasts of kidnapping his ex-wife then holding her for three days so he could methodically beat and rape her.

Mitchum was no follower of the Stanislavski method, but Peck and Thompson observed him psyching into his role. “Cady was the threat,” Gregory Peck explained. “So when Bob walked into a scene everyone in the crew was on guard, wondering what he would do next.” This most affected violent scenes later in the film, where at moments it appeared Mitchum lost conscious control. When he was rampaging through scrub with an axe, one member of the film crew had to cry out as if injured to jar the actor back to reality.[14]

James Webb, who crafted the screenplay, made modifications when adapting The Executioners. The Bowden family contracted from three children to a single teenager, for instance, and Max Cady’s detailed background was omitted. The latter detail was significant. It had not only fixed Cady as psychologically unstable, explaining his violent disposition. It directly invoked the very real crimes committed by a US soldier during wartime.

The American hard-boiled novel had shifted ground after the Second World War. Psychology entered the frame of reference, as characters affected by combat experience were beginning to appear.[15] This shift began in 1947 with Dorothy Hughes’s thriller In a Lonely Place. The Nuremberg trials were well under way when her novel was published, and people were asking why seemingly everyday, sometimes highly civilised people could brutally kill without any compunction. Hughes invoked these same thoughts with her haunted character Dix Steele, an amiable playboy recently demobbed from the Air Corps, and the unidentified serial strangler now terrifying Los Angeles.

This fictional figure leads the direction to a new crime fiction sub-genre which aspired to delve into the mind of someone driven to kill.[16] These unsettling characters do not murder. There is no frenzy, no abrupt emotion involved. They kill quite cold-bloodedly as if putting down an animal. And like Dix Steele, who knows what he is doing, preying upon a sequence of women without pause, these fictional killers have a compulsion. Killing is part of who they are.

Many of the novels are far-fetched. The eccentric playboy Charles Bruno in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950) and the portly, middle-aged misanthrope Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) are so visibly warped they remain the stuff of fiction. Other stories in the sub-genre avoid psychologising, laying blame on innate malevolence. Foremost is eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark who holds centre stage in William March’s disturbing thriller The Bad Seed (1954). Embodying manifest evil without needing to invoke Satan or the occult, this blonde charmer with charismatic blue eyes is an Aryan monster in the making. Anyone who gets in the way of pretty little Rhoda meets with a fatal accident.

Yet certain thrillers do have a chilling plausibility. Drawing on clinical psychology, their authors craft killers who act like genuine sociopaths. Lou Ford, the unhinged deputy sheriff in Jeff Thomson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), and Tom Ripley, a charming parasite feeding on Ivy League youth in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), are utterly believable predators. This is not the usual “make believe” of a competent American thriller, that plainly fictional construction. Lacking all capacity for empathy, and equipped with damaged backgrounds, there is a credibility to how they inhabit the world.

The Max Cady of John MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners was one of these plausible monsters, replete with a diagnosis. Cady has a “psychopathic personality”, a detective explains to Sam Bowden. “They make us learn the terms. But that’s a classification where they put people they don’t know what else to call. People they can’t treat. People who don’t respond to any appeal you can make to them.”[17]

The novel adds to this a wartime back-story which drives the plot. The reader learns Cady had been a career soldier, a twenty-five-year-old staff sergeant with seven years experience when America entered the war. Then, with more than two hundred days of combat in the islands, he was sent to Melbourne due to “a bad case of jungle rot and jungle nerves”.[18] When he arrived there, Cady went on a bender and attacked a fourteen-year-old girl. But Sam Bowden had happened along. He was a second lieutenant fresh from law school and passing through Melbourne on his way to take up his first JAG posting. Bowden came across the violent rape scene, called in the US Navy’s shore patrol, then testified against Sergeant Cady at the subsequent court-martial. Found guilty of raping a minor, Cady would ordinarily have been hanged, but due to his service record and mental health, he was dishonourably discharged and given a life sentence with hard labour to be served in the US. Fifteen years later, his case was reviewed and he was allowed out on parole.

When the novel begins, Bowden has learned that Cady is looking for him. This is not a simple grudge: “You don’t have to be a trained psychoanalyst,” Sam tells his wife at the outset. “Somehow, when a person is different you know it. I suppose we all run in the same pack, in a sense. And there are always little clues to the rogue beast. I don’t think Cady is sane.”[19]

In assembling a back-story John MacDonald used aspects from Melbourne’s “Brown Out Murders” of May 1942, when someone strangled three local women over fifteen days.[20] Civil and military authorities found themselves confronting a crisis in a city filling with American servicemen being readied for battle at Guadalcanal. Identifying the nocturnal killer was difficult. Besides the volume of troops loose in the city each night, there was no pattern to the victims: a prostitute, then a policeman’s wife, then a female academic from the city’s university. Melbourne was in an uproar. An alert GI eventually identified the culprit as Eddie Leonski, a conscript from New Jersey who had twice previously attacked women. There were strong doubts about the killer’s mental stability, although an army doctor declared him sane so a full trial might proceed. Instead of Leonski being tried by an Australian court, a United States court-martial was convened on orders from General Douglas McArthur, the Commander of Pacific forces. The accused was found guilty, and hanged in November.

News of the episode spread among Americans serving in the Pacific, especially those tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors who passed through Melbourne. They included the young John MacDonald, who was serving with the US Army’s Ordnance Corps. He later tapped aspects of the case for crime stories he developed, among them the novel The Executioners.

When it was adapted into the movie Cape Fear, the screenwriter James Webb eliminated Cady’s military service and war experiences, and cut his prison time to eight years.[21] So, in the character’s transition over to film, an obsessed predator ceased to be a former soldier, brutalised by combat and penal servitude. Max Cady was equipped with a new background.

Versions of Cape Fear’s protagonists appeared in Gregory Peck’s next feature film, To Kill a Mockingbird. Based on Harper Lee’s novel, and set in Alabama a generation earlier, that movie would see the actor play another lawyer in a Southern town. And, likewise, the plot pivots on a rape. This time the lawyer, Atticus Finch, is defending an upstanding Negro unjustly accused of sexual assault. Where Cape Fear has Max Cady represent the lawyer’s cruel and loutish nemesis, To Kill a Mockingbird has Bob Ewell, whose daughter was reputedly raped, to convey a Hobbesian brutishness.

Each is openly resentful and envious, yet Cady and Ewell differ by degrees. The Max Cady of the film is a changed man after eight years in a Maryland prison. He has learned to read, and has studied up on criminal law. His wife has divorced him, leaving him single, and he has sold off the family farm in the Appalachians. Cady may now be a drifter, exuding the stench of life at the bottom (the novel colourfully says he “smells like some kind of animal”).[22] But he is cashed up and cunning. He now knows the legal system and his rights under it.

Bob Ewell, whose life has been geographically, economically and culturally fixed at the squalid fringe of a small town, has none of these advantages. So where the self-educated Cady controls his anger, spending days taunting the lawyer, the illiterate, inarticulate Ewell can only act on impulse, erupting in fury and spitting in Finch’s face.[23] Nevertheless, when To Kill a Mockingbird approaches its climax it is as if the tales spill into each other. Much as the sadistic Cady attacks Peggy and Nancy Bowden in a dark marsh along the Cape Fear River, the utterly vulgar Ewell pursues the terrified Finch children through the woods at night, intent on knifing them in a similar act of resentful vengeance against their father.

Bob Ewell and his family are aspects of that same indigent social undergrowth the Max Cadys and Harry Powells sprouted from. Harper Lee’s novel describes the Ewell clan as subsisting in a former “Negro cabin”, which, through apathy, they have worn down to a filthy shack strewn with garbage. None in the community know how many younger Ewells there are: “No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.”[24] Childhood for them is spent playing upon or combing through the town dump until they reach an age when they graduate to petty crime, their footing into the adult world.

The American social historian Nancy Isenberg points to how much about character is conveyed by the fleeting portrayal of the Ewells in To Kill a Mockingbird: “the shabbily attired Mayella Ewell is cowed by her bully of a father, a scrawny man seen in overalls, who is devoid of merit or morality”.[25] For Isenberg, this figure embodies national perceptions of an underclass:

Bob Ewell demands the all-white jury of common men take his side, which they do in the end. He insists that they help him avenge his daughter … Bob Ewell’s full name is Robert E. Lee Ewell. But he is not an heir of one of the aristocratic families of the Old South. As Harper Lee described them in the classic novel on which the film was based, the Ewells are members of the terminally poor, those whose status could not be lifted or debased by economic fluctuation—not even the Depression. They were human waste.[26]

Of course, the Ewells are representatives of white trash—that immense Southern underclass popular culture either ignored or lowered to comic relief. “White Trash” for Hollywood usually meant L’il Abner and Pappy Yokum, or the Ozark clan of Ma and Pa Kettle. This underclass was considered beneath meaningful representation; so to find it portrayed with understanding and eloquence one needed to look to the recent fiction of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. Which begins to explain why Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird were feature films which audiences responded to as serious drama. There was nothing patronising or escapist in how they portrayed “White Trash”.

But the violent aggression of Max Cady and Bob Ewell also rubbed an anxious nerve across contemporary America. Three years earlier a pair of just paroled ex-convicts had, intent on robbery, entered a sleeping Kansas farm at night. They then wakened and murdered everyone inside: Herb and Bonnie Clutter, and their teenage children Nancy, sixteen, and Kenyon, fifteen—a happy family snuffed out. Police reported the victims were each tied down in their beds, then dispatched by a shotgun blast to the head. Herb Clutter’s throat was also cut.

Within weeks a similar grisly incident occurred on a Florida farm. Cliff and Chris Walker, their three-year-old toddler Jimmy, and twelve-month-old Debbie, were murdered in their home on a Saturday afternoon, five days before Christmas. Wrapped gifts for the children were under a decorated tree. Again, a shotgun had been held to the head of each person, then fired. Mrs Walker had been viciously raped, while her baby was drowned in the bathtub then shot.

These incidents were headline material from coast to coast. People wanted to know why. What was behind the killers’ brutal behaviour? Was this unbridled envy? Why did they murder children? Had they no mercy? America was horrified.

The Walker family killings have never been solved; although, after six weeks of intense police work, the Clutter family’s murderers were identified, then caught. They were Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, hopeless cases from the Ozarks. Experts interviewed them. The celebrated writer Truman Capote (a native of Alabama), who wrote a book on the murders, In Cold Blood, spent countless hours in conversation with the pair trying to find out why. Neither could explain their motives. They just killed everyone in the home, then drove away.

Max Cady and Bob Ewell gave faces to such inexplicable violence. One calculating, the other spontaneous, each embodied an aspect of driven ruthlessness. And they came from the same abject stock which, since arriving in Virginia, Carolina and Georgia 350 years earlier, had leached through the South, outward to the Mississippi and beyond. Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird seemed to offer Cady and Ewell as comprehensible versions of Hickock and Smith. No wonder cinema audiences across the United States watched these underclass characters pursue children through the shadows—and reacted with fear.

The just man boxed in by corrupting circumstances features often in Hollywood movies of the post-war economic boom.[27] He is Will Kane in High Noon (1952), Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory (1957), Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those were dramas of high ambition consciously hewn in an American grain. Each centres on that decent figure that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had spoken of wanting to encourage and protect—a just man who finds himself up against corrupted institutions and a cowardly majority which will not act ethically.

These overtones are deftly pressed with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It even starts by identifying Stoddard, who through much of a flashback-structured-narrative juggles efforts to practise law in a frontier town with voluntary teaching and paid dish-washing work, as being a future governor and senator, a progressive leader, a nation builder who will bring the best out of the Wild West. Actually, John Ford was directing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the sound studios at Paramount, even as Lee Thompson was making Cape Fear across at Universal. And Ford’s film also tells of a lawyer, in a paralysed community, being harassed by a backwoods thug. So is Sam Bowden another just man?

Comparison of the two movies brings out their differences. Take the many symbols Ford scatters through his film: how the lawyer always wears an apron when he confronts brute force; how a Negro ranch-hand learns to read by working on the Declaration of Independence, starting at the line “All men are created equal”; and how, despite his Jeffersonian name “Liberty”, the gunslinger opposes political freedom—he smashes up the newspaper office, and sets out to kill the winners of district elections. These details underline how The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance aspires to be a mythic tale of justice, as against Cape Fear which fixes on the moral choices of a man confronting danger. So where Ransom Stoddard as acted by James Stewart is a model of gentlemanly conduct who struggles to behave justly in a lawless community, Gregory Peck portrays Sam Bowden as a pragmatic modern man who knows how to work the rules in a well-policed town.

Peck’s character initially exudes principle and confident stability. Bowden responds to the arrival of Max Cady by trying to get the former felon run out of town. Bowden’s police chief friend, Mark Dutton, offers to book Cady on a vagrancy charge. Bowden even attends the interview at the police station where the parolee is strip-searched. Standing only in his underpants, Cady will not be humiliated by them. He defiantly tells Bowden and Dutton he has done no wrong, and the law is on his side. Cady says has every right to be in “their” town.

Still, Dutton’s officers make things difficult for the parolee. After holding him in the cells over Friday night, they search his room and car on Saturday. On Monday they pick him up on suspicion of armed robbery, while Tuesday sees him brought in again for a line-up over a woman’s bag snatch. Then Cady’s landlady asks him to leave. Wednesday sees him picked up on suspicion of burglary, released, then later in the day picked up on suspicion of car theft. After the second police visit, Cady’s new landlord tells him to move out.

Far from dealing with a system and a community which will not help him, Cape Fear portrays a man who has everything working his way. It’s Cady who needs support. The parolee must get a lawyer, who accuses Dutton of harassing his client and giving favours by assigning officers to protect the Bowden family each day. The police back down.

Cady stalks the Bowdens in a taunting manner. He appears and watches when they are together at a bowling alley, and also a marina, then begins loitering outside Nancy’s school when classes are dismissed for the day. Then the Bowden family’s dog is poisoned. The audience knows who did it.

The dangerousness of Max Cady is clear as the story runs, although Sam Bowden is hardly a passive victim. He offers the parolee money to leave town. It is rejected. Next Bowden hires a private detective to watch Cady and dig around. When this proves ineffective, the lawyer pays a couple of thugs to grab Cady and give him a thrashing. So, rather than being a just man of unwavering convictions, Bowden has become compromised. Midway through Cape Fear, Peggy Bowden points this out to her husband, saying he is allowing desperation to wear down his principles. She worries that this upright decent man she loves, a lawyer by profession, is turning against civilised values and the law. Soon afterwards, Bowden faces disbarment proceedings over hiring those men to beat up Cady.

Then Bowden decides to trap his nemesis. Having to travel out of town on business, he sends his wife and daughter to stay alone in a houseboat at a remote spot on the Cape Fear River. However, Bowden and a sheriff’s deputy plan to wait in hiding for Cady to arrive and board the vessel. Things do not work out that way. Cady murders the deputy, then terrorises and taunts Peggy Bowden prior to getting her daughter Nancy alone for a rape.

Originally the novel ran to a dark ending. John MacDonald had his plot culminate in Sam Bowden firing a gun wildly as Max Cady, having attacked Bowden’s wife, runs off into the night. Police arrive to find that by chance one bullet has clipped and killed the menace. Looking upon the lifeless corpse, the lawyer experiences a “savage satisfaction, a feeling of strong and primitive fulfilment” at how he has “turned this elemental and merciless force into clay”.[28] Bowden has sacrificed more than ethics. He has himself become vengeful: “All the neat and careful layers of civilised instincts and behaviour were peeled back to reveal an intense exultation over the death of an enemy.”[29]

This ending was unacceptable for a feature film in 1962. The censor’s office didn’t need to object. Gregory Peck, Lee Thompson and Sy Bartlett had already agreed. Morality would prevail; the model citizen yielded to principle; no one took the law into their own hands. So following a bloody nocturnal fight he almost loses, Sam Bowden, the man who has barely prevented the rape of his fourteen-year-old daughter, takes their assailant prisoner. After 102 minutes of screen tension, Max Cady is going back to jail.

Christopher Heathcote has written a number of articles on film, the most recent being “FromBullitt to Dirty Harry via the Supreme Court” in the March 2019 issue.


[1] Unless indicated, quotes by Gregory Peck and J. Lee Thompson are from Laurent Bouzereau, The Making of Cape Fear, (2001) on Cape Fear (DVD), Universal Studios, 2003

[2] The respective Hitchcock films Tomasini & Herrmann had worked on to date were; Tomasini – Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho; Hermmann – The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho.

[3] Bouzereau, Making of Cape Fear, op.cit.

[4] Bouzereau, Making of Cape Fear, op.cit..

[5] John D. MacDonald, The Executioners, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1957, p.5.

[6] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit ., p.99.

[7] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit., pp.99-100.

[8] Michael Freedland, Gregory Peck: A Biography, W.H.Allen, London, 1980, pp.171-72

[9] George Eells, Robert Mitchum: A Biography, Franklin Watts, New York, 1984, p.188.

[10] Peck told his biographer that due to this agreement Mitchum made more on the film than he did. Freedland, Gregory Peck, op.cit., pp.171-72.

[11] The youth was walking to the Post Office to collect a money order from his mother, but was stopped on the street by a policeman. Having only small change in his pockets, Mitchum was charged with vagrancy. After several days wearing shackles on the gang, he developed an ulcer on one ankle. Eells, Robert Mitchum, op.cit., pp.27-28, 221-22.

[12] Mitchum did not to work over the script, instead making adjustments as each scene came up for filming. Freedland, Gregory Peck, op.cit., pp.171-72.

[13] Bouzereau, Making of Cape Fear, op.cit..

[14] Bouzereau, Making of Cape Fear, op.cit..

[15] Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2001, pp.61-2.

[16] Horsley, The Noir Thriller, op.cit., pp.119-24.

[17] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit., p.100.

[18] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit., p.5.

[19] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit., p.8.

[20] see Peter Pierce, “Edward Joseph Leonski”, in John Richie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2000, vol.15..

[21] Retaining Cady’s army service struck the producers as ill-advised due to Mitchum’s celebrated role in The Story of GI Joe (1945). For his next role after Cape Fear, the actor was also contracted to play a general in the D-Day epic The Longest Day.

[22] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit., p.147.

[23] Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Atlantic Books, London, 2017, p.254.

[24] quoted in Isenberg, White Trash, op.cit., p.xxv. See also p.254.

[25] Isenberg, White Trash, op.cit., p.xxv.

[26] Isenberg, White Trash, op.cit., p.xxv.

[27] cf. Joan Mellen, Big Bad Wolves: Masculinty in the American Film, Elm Tree, London, 1978, pp.220-22.

[28] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit., p.154. See also Horsley, The Noir Thriller, op. cit., pp.112-13.

[29] MacDonald, The Executioners, op. cit., p.154.

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