by Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.

“Night of the Hunter” (1955) and “Cape Fear” (1961)

“Night of the Hunter” features one of the greatest film villains of all time, brought to life by the single finest performance in Robert Mitchum’s remarkable career. He plays Harry Powell, a very charismatic, very corrupt, preacher with a great deal of blood on his hands. Notably, this evil holy man is neither a lunatic or delusional; instead, this is an unusually literate exploration of “radical evil,” an evil conscious of its own wickedness, like Shakspere’s Iago, and not driven by any irrational need, justified by any hypocrisy, or reflecting any fanatical distortion of virtue. He just knows what he wants, doesn’t care if he’s bad, and wastes no time on self-justification. The film is about Mitchum charming, deceiving, manipulating, and then murdering an innocent woman (Shelly Winters) and his cross-country pursuit of her two children with the same intent, all for the purpose but ill-gotten financial gain. Let’s face it, you can’t can’t get much worse than that.

hunt4There’s reason to suspect the character was shaped through Mitchum’s interpretations more than many other cases when actors sublimate themselves to bring a script to life. There are a couple of scenes where he talks with God about his misdeeds, and certainly this could be played in such a way that the preacher thought he was on a divine mission, but Mitchum’s interpretation is too mocking for that; he underlines the fact that he fails to recognize any significance in any entity outside himself — not the ever watchful eye of God, and significantly for the plot of the film, not the lives of little children.

hunt5Mitchum’s knuckles are famously tattooed with H-A-T-E on one hand, L-O-V-E on the other, hinting at the film’s moral absolutes, but for Mitchum, love has no meaning. In this film, “love’s” moral expression must be provided by another, Lillan Gish, who — as Mitchum’s utter contrast and a woman of purest virtue — defends the threatened children. Gish’s performance is so full conviction that she saves the character from descending into camp.

And then there’s Peter Graves, whose greatest attribute across his more than 50-year-long career was maintaining some dignity no matter how embarrassing the material was — a highly professional C-lister. Here though, in a small part, he displays depth and pathos that he would never equal again.

These amazing performances likely came about because their director was himself a legendary actor, Charles Laughton. This marked the beginning of Laughton’s directorial career. But panned by critics and a failure at the box office, it also marked the end of that same career, which is a tragedy, because time has been kind to this film — it is now recognized as one of the finest ever made and a breakthrough moment in cinema.

hunt6Critics and audiences were simply unprepared for the style. Though the plot indulged in some contrivances (the soon to be executed Graves shares tantalizing hints about hidden treasure to cell-mate Mitchum), there’s nothing especially unrealistic about it, and a number of the thriller-genre’s most cliched and melodramatic crutches are in fact side-stepped to strengthen believable cause-and-effect (in the climax, Gish prioritizes protecting the children over punishing Mitchum; this is realistic but unusual in a thriller, and requires that Mitchum ultimately be captured off screen by lawmen who are never part of the script). But Laughton saw this battle between good and evil as expressing a dualism stark enough to take on aspects of a fairy tale, and so told his story is told mostly through the lens of expressionistic visual fantasy.

huntThe visual language of prosaic fairy tale fantasy dominated the first two thirds of the film, but the climax is one of darker-than-Val-Lewton shadows, and this is what everyone remembers the most — Mitchum invisible at the bottom of the stairs crooning, “Children…” and than leaping up — more like an predatory cat than a mortal man. Then, moments after Gish gets the better of him, we get a few seconds frozen on his face of his perfectly dumb, animalistic incomprehension. It’s that image of Mitchum’s face that burned itself into my brain. How many times has a villain scared you most, not when he jumps out and says BOO!, but after he’s brought low?



“Cape Fear” (1961)

When Gregory Peck was cast as the hero of this classic thriller, he worried that the character of the villain, vengeful ex-con Max Cady, would take over the film, and Peck’s character, the loving father and respected attorney Sam Bowden, would seem dull by comparison.

And that was BEFORE they cast Robert Mitchum as Cady.

Though “Night of the Hunter” starring Robert Mitchum (1955) was a critical and financial failure, someone must have watched it because I have no doubt it played a role in Mitchum’s casting here. You couldn’t describe “Cape Fear” as a sequel to “Night of the Hunter,” but this film’s Max Cady is a sequel to the other film’s bobb4Harry Powell. His years in prison have perfected his self-control, and while living inside his own head, he’s had no civilizing influences to blunt him as he sharpens his teeth. He’s more mature and more like a predator you’d expect to meet on the streets of America. While “Night of the Hunter” had a fairy-tale quality, this is noir-ish, fairly realistic, and sexually blunt. Though the film makers were forbidden to use the word “rape” and constantly badgered by censors to down-play the nature of the threat to Bowden’s young daughter, there’s no indirectness in the sexual nature of Mitchum’s predation. Moreover, it’s a bit ahead of feminist theory here, because it demonstrates Mitchum’s sexual predation was not based on desire for sex, but the lust to exercise animalistic power.  His fantasies about what he would do to Bowden’s life have sustained him far more than his fantasies of what he would do to a woman’s body.

Mitchum completely owns this film. He’s a beast gifted with a true sociopath’s gift for reading people, and he’s handsome and magnetic, and he knows how to use it (he spends a lot of this film with his shirt off). And he studied law in prison, so now, while stalking the man who put him behind bars, and his family, he knows exactly where the legal line is. He can stand just a little bit outside the reach of the authorities, while watching Peck twist on the mental hook.

Critics were far more positively inclined towards this film than toward “Night of the Hunter”, but even so, only seven years had passed and you can still detect a cautiousness towards its content, (Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, “This is really one of those shockers that provokes disgust and regret”). Clearly, no such hurdles of censorship or skittishness plagued Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.

bobb2Though restraint was forced on this version, the most important difference between this and the Scorcese re-make was the conception of  Max Cady, returning us again to the idea of “radical evil.” In both, the motive is the same, vengeance for a long prison sentence, but in this version Bowden had testified against Cady (more similar to the original 1957 novel by John D. MacDonald) while in the latter, Bowden was Cady’s public defender who had suppressed a report that might have lightened Cady’s sentence or even gotten him acquitted. In the former, Cady is wholly sane, perfectly cunning, and his pursuit of his desires are unchecked by conscience. In the remake, Cady is unhinged, and believes he is on a campaign for justice, so instead being without conscience, he has a twisted righteousness driving his monstrousness. The former Cady epitomizes radical evil; that latter embodies madness.

bobb8Insanity is scarier than the merely venal, because — for the most part — we believe that the venal have boundaries but the insane do not. In older films, however, conventional venality has learned to live with no boundaries, and is empowered by the complete lack of them, a sort of corruption of Nietzsche’s superman. The fact that such an exceptional criminal is so believable makes Mitchum’s Cady a lot scarier that Robert DeNiro’s (despite DeNiro’s powerful performance in the role).

bobb7The film has a number of fine set pieces. Notable is the brutal and almost completely improvised scene where Cady corners Bowden’s wife, played by Polly Bergen, on the houseboat. Mitchum’s rubbing the eggs on Bergen was not in the script, so her disgusted reaction was completely naturalistic. As it was unrehearsed, at least in its final form, Mitchum was a little rougher on Bergen than he should have been, which probably help the realism, but also injured the actress’ back. Still, the very best scenes are the quiet ones, where Mitchum does very little, and is very relaxed, toying with Peck like a particularly self- satisfied cat.

Here is the trailer to the original with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum:

Trailer to the inferior, but still compelling, remake:


3 Responses to Robert Mitchum in the Original “Cape Fear” Is the Essence of Evil

  1. Vera says:

    Mitchum was great in this movie. De Niro’s Cady scared the hell out of me but he also went a little over the top.

  2. Rick says:

    I enjoyed reading your post, Robert. Until watching the trailer for the remake of “Cape Fear,” I had forgotten that the protagonists of the original movie — Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum — both had cameo roles in the new version. For me, it is hard to say which version of “Cape Fear” is better: both versions had excellent acting, scripts, and storytelling. Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Cady is just as chilling and effective as Robert Mitchum’s rendition of that character. Mitchum’s depiction of Cady is probably more realistic, however, because DeNiro simply refused to die on several occasions when mere mortals would have succumbed, somewhat like the “Jason” character in the “Friday the 13th” movies.

  3. Brooks Weiss says:

    Just watched this classic again after many years. The movie is flawed, in my opinion, by the character played by Polly Bergen. She is supposed to fetch her daughter from her school but, even though the daughter is the last one to leave the campus, the mother’s nowhere to be found even though they know there is a stalker after her intending to do harm. Her excuse is: “oh, it took longer than I expected at the store”. I instantly hated her. Then, after she comes home she tries to turn in her husband for wanting to protect their daughter by going after the bad man. I secretly hoped she would die later in the movie. Maybe I’m being unfair? Her character sort of ruined the movie for me. I’ll watch the Jack Nicholson version and see if the same issue plays out. Just sayin’.

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