It turns out that neither Ms. Spenser nor I had seen the Robert Mitchum Cape Fear (1962). We remedied that recently. For those who haven't seen it, or the De Niro re-make, it stars Gregory Peck as a lawyer in picturesque Cape Fear NC. Robert Mitchum is Max Cady, a man that Peck put in prison. He has just gotten out and wants lets Peck know that he plans to make him suffer, along with his wife and daughter.
Peck is connected in the community - he gets the police chief to try to roust Cady, but all attempts fail. Even when he brutally beats a B-girl, she won't testify. She's too scared. So the only thing left to do is set a trap and kill him.
Maybe someone else can clarify, is Peck's reaction supposed to be kind of sleazy? First, try to use your political connections. When that doesn't work, try to kill him. I guess restraining orders hadn't been invented.
Anyway, he's scared. Everyone is scared. Mitchum is one scary guy. He's big, he loves violence and he "doesn't give a damn." This would be a good film with someone else in the role: it's got some pretty locations and the tension is kept high. But Mitchum takes it to another level.
However, Ms. Spenser wanted to see his "Love/Hate" knuckle tattoos, so we queued up The Night of the Hunter (1955). It introduces us first to the environment with an aerial view of a river in the midwest - the Ohio? Then we meet Mitchum who is thanking the Lord God for the widows that he's killed, for the good Lord provideth. We also meet John and Pearl, two little kids whose dad (Peter Graves!) just committed murder with robbery and lets the kids know where the money if they promise not to tell anyone, including their mother (Shelley Winters!), who he figures is soft-headed.
Graves ends up in prison with Mitchum who's just doing a few months for car-theft. (Do they really put death-row inmates in with short-timers? Maybe they did in the Depression.) When Graves is executed and Mitchum gets out, he decides to go meet the widow. His courtship and marriage to Winters is one of the most chilling parts of the movie - he convinces her that she is an unclean sinner in a way that is almost as menacing as Max Cady beating the loose woman.
I want to go light on spoilers - if you haven't seen this, you should. But he eventually starts chasing the children and they set off down the river. The film takes a somewhat impressionist feel here. This was Charles Laughton's first and only time directing. He doesn't always seem like he's completely in control of his medium - there's a touch of amateurism here. But the movie is full of odd touches - the unfamiliar lullabies and children's songs, the glimpses of the animal world, the world of shadows and moonlight, and they get much stronger here. But there are other scenes of rare beauty and horror, like the underwater corpse with the flowing hair.
Here's a little spoiler: In the end, when Mitchum gets what's coming to him, it's pretty slapstick. It starts out tension-filled and scary, with Mitchum lurking around singing an old hymn, and the children's protector harmonizing along. But when it ends, it was like waking up from a nightmare and wondering what was so frightening.
Night of the Hunter was really fascinating, Cape Fear really scary. I suppose we should watch the De Niro version next. We'll see if we can stand the tension.