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Making the Original Cape Fear

Martin Scorsese’s 1991 film Cape Fear was a remake of the 1962 classic thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Peck also produced the original film. “At the time, I had a production company that had produced several pictures, and I had been co producer on several,” said Peck. “It was the coming thing. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had also begun to produce their own pictures. I forget who came up with the novel by John D. MacDonald called The Executioners. But it seemed a good thriller – it offered several good acting parts – and we decided to go into the business of making a thriller.”

Director J. Lee Thompson recalled, "Cape Fear was offered to me by Greg Peck, who owned the movie rights to The Executioners. This was while I was directing him in The Guns of Navarone.” Gregory Peck explained, “I had liked Lee a lot on The Guns of Navarone, particularly because he took over on about five days’ notice. Carl Foreman, the producer, had had a falling-out with the original director and sent him packing. Lee was somewhere in England, and we’d looked at a lot of pictures that he’d made. He seemed to have an eye for action film, and at the same time, a good eye for character. He was good on the quiet scenes and on the noisy scenes. It was just amazing the way he took over, and we all admired him for it. So I thought he was just the fellow for Cape Fear.”

Thompson was thrilled at the opportunity to direct Cape Fear. As he
recalled, “James Webb, who wrote the script, came over to London and we
went through his script, and we worked on it again in Paris. I just
worked on it purely from a director’s point of view, trying to make
each scene a little more suspenseful. You know, I’ve studied Hitchcock…
and when I come to a scene, I can’t help but I wonder how Hitchcock
would do it. Hitchcock almost always liked to let the audience know and
the person on the screen not know.”

“And then I came over to L.A. and made my first American film,"
Thompson added. “The Executioners was now called Cape Fear, a title
that Gregory Peck made up.”

“The Executioners, I thought, was a kind of a turn-off of a title.”
Peck explained. “And I had the idea that geographical titles were
sometimes successful – you know, like Casablanca, Dodge City. It
occurred to me to run my finger up the Atlantic coast from Florida on
north and look for an interesting title, and I was lucky enough to
discover Cape Fear – the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. And it
seemed extremely appropriate for our story.”

J. Lee Thompson was thrilled that Cape Fear was able to attract such as
strong cast. "I realized at the start that this was a fairly ordinary
thriller and that it would have to depend a lot on mood and getting the
right characterizations, the right actors to portray the lead parts. My
vision was to make it moody and to emphasize the characterizations.
Greg was extremely unselfish, because when he gave me this script he
said that the part of ‘Cady’ would of course steal every scene, and he
put up a wonderful performance against Robert Mitchum. Of course,
Robert Mitchum excelled himself.”

Thompson was thrilled to work with Mitchum, who was one of his heroes.
“I had the good fortune of having him in a great role,” Thompson said.
“He did warn me right from the start – he said, ‘This part is a drunk,
a rapist, and a violent man. And I live my parts.’ Which was a sort of
warning that we might have some stormy passages during the making of
the film. That was fine, and we did have some stormy passages.”

Much of the film was shot in 1961 at Universal Studios, but the crew
also traveled to Savannah, Georgia for three or four weeks to capture
some authentic southern exteriors.

“We had – I was going to say ‘difficulty,’ but it wasn’t really
difficulty,” J. Lee Thompson explained. “But the truth is that Robert
Mitchum completely lived the part of ‘Cady,’ and you know, he was quite
a handful on the set. At one time, he was sentenced to a chain gang in
Savannah, and he hadn’t forgotten that. He was very hostile in the
surroundings, and this helped in the part. His inner rage came out, and
it was very interesting to work with a man who was so into the part.”

According to director Thompson, upon arriving on location the first
day, Mitchum started singing, "How dear to my heart are the scenes of
my childhood, when fond recollection presents them to view." When
Thompson asked Mitchum why he was singing that song, the actor
explained to his director that at the age of 16, he’d been arrested for
vagrancy in Savannah and spent six days on a chain gang before
escaping. "These are the scenes of my childhood, man, and they are very
dear, very dear indeed, to my heart," Mitchum said.

Nearly 40 years later, J. Lee Thompson still vividly recalled his
star’s seething anger. “Mitchum felt a bitterness against the whole
place – against the community, and he had a big chip on his shoulder.
So he was always ready to explode, which was great for the picture. I
mean, I didn’t try to stop that.” 

Director J. Lee Thompson struggled with the studio over the ending. "I
was in favor of Peck actually killing him, and that the film would end
right there in the swamp,” said Thomson. “And of course at that time…
the studio was anxious for a more happy ending, and so in the end we
all went along with that."

“In those days, you had meetings with the censor,” recalled Thompson,
“and I met with him and he looked at the script and said, ‘There are
certain areas that are dangerous. There must be no suggestion that Cady
is really out to rape the girl.’ Which was a very tough one right from
the start. And then he said, ‘You must be careful of the violence –
violence to women, violence in any form.’”

“Anyway, I went ahead and made the film,” said Thompson, “and the next
step in censorship is that the censor sees the film. And obviously he
looks very carefully at those areas which he had warned you about.  In
our case, he said, ‘Mitchum looks too lasciviously at the girl.’ There
was a scene on the pier where he saw the girl in a rowboat below him,
and he looked at her, according to the censor, ‘too lasciviously.’
Well, actually I thought it was just a very good Mitchum look… So it
was a tightrope that we walked.”

Director J. Lee Thompson thought that remaking Cape Fear wasn’t a bad
idea. “If anyone had to remake Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese was the man
to do it,” he said. “The fact that it was Martin Scorsese doing it
pleased me, because he is my favorite director. He had all the
liberties that I didn’t have. In this day and age, I could’ve really
gone for it, without the censor worrying me. I think it was a good
enough film to do again, to show it to a newer audience.”

Gregory Peck agreed. “I remember that Bobby De Niro said, ‘You know, we
want to do this as an hommage to your version of Cape Fear.’ Marty was
enthusiastic, and so was I. I couldn’t find anything wrong with the
idea of doing a remake. It was a form of flattery, in fact.”

Sources:
Francis M. Nevins, “Cape Fear Dead Ahead: Transforming a Thrice-Told Tale of Lawyers and Law,” Legal Studies Forum, 2000
Cape Fear (1962) DVD: “The Making of Cape Fear” Featurette
“Hollywood Tough Guy, Robert Mitchum, Dead at 79,” CNN.com, 7/19/99

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