Not too long ago I saw, for the first time, the 1962 version of the film Cape Fear, directed by J. Lee Thompson. (You may know the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake.) It starred two men whose casting alone would have alerted early ’60s moviegoers about where their sympathies were supposed to lie. Robert Mitchum, famous for depicting characters of pure wickedness even at the risk of his status as a leading man (think 1955’s Night of the Hunter), plays an ex-con just out of prison. He’s convinced that one man is responsible for his incarceration: a lawyer played by Gregory Peck who saw him commit the brutal murder for which he went to prison. Peck played to type, too: a heroic, sweet, selfless lawyer, tough but fair, who would never cut a corner, even to restore order to a fallen world—just like the character he played in To Kill a Mockingbird, also from 1962.
I saw Cape Fear back when we were all discussing the meaning and ethics of Zero Dark Thirty. Remember that big old debate? Some, most prominently three senators in a position to know, argued the picture was “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden”—and was, thus, objectively pro-torture. Others, like Michael Moore, said the interrogation scenes were so off-putting that no one could but to conclude from them, Moore wrote, that “torture is wrong.” Others pointed out that the full plot, in its byzantine complexities, suggests that the tidbit of information that broke the case came investigators’ way before those interrogations happened—so the movie could not be read as objectively pro-torture. I disagree with both those latter two arguments. The reason is simple: ZDT is a genre piece, a police procedural, in which convention dictates that sweating the suspect—good cop, bad cop, and all that; an unpleasant job but somebody has to do it—is but one of the required stations of the cross to move the plot along to resolution, and justice.
In any event I couldn’t stop thinking about that movie while watching Cape Fear—thinking about what the Zero Dark Thirty debate says about 2013, from the perspective of this very different movie from 1962.
In Cape Fear, the Robert Mitchum character reappears in the Peck character’s life to deliver a veritable clinic in how you terrorize a family—to reduce the victim to a puddle of fear and make it impossible for his family to live their lives without being possessed by that fear. Peck has a lovely wife and pubescent daughter—that’s central to the plot. First, his daughter’s beloved dog is poisoned to death. He next learns that the Mitchum character’s girlfriend has been brutally beaten. Mitchum then starts bird-dogging Peck’s daughter, leering at her, harassing her–then chasing her into a corner of a scary building. Peck confronts Mitchum in a bar and tries to pay him off to leave his family alone. Mitchum refuses, pledging to visit the “death of a thousand cuts” on his adversary instead.