Saturday, November 5, 2016

Psychotic Tendencies

This is my entry in the A Celebration of Classic Hollywood blogathon hosted by An Old Fashioned Girl.

John Wayne is my absolute favorite actor, no question about it.  But if I were forced to add to the list #s 2-whatever, I'd almost surely list Robert Mitchum in the top 5, maybe even as high as #2.   Mitchum could pull off anything, from comedic roles (Holiday Affair, What a Way to Go!), dramatic turns (Thunder Road, The Enemy Below), even romantic hero (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison).  One of my favorite Mitchum performances, which is also my favorite John Wayne movie is the previously reviewed El Dorado, wherein Mitchum plays a drunken sheriff, paired with Wayne to fight off an unscrupulous land baron.

To really get a good example of Mitchum's talent, however, you have to see how well he can pull off unadulterated evil.  Whether as a convicted rapist bent on revenge against a former state's witness that helped put him in jail, or as a renegade preacher/ serial killer, bent on finding his former cellmate's stolen booty, Mitchum can exude such malevolence as to give one nightmares.

Night of the Hunter (1955)

Mitchum plays Harry Powell in a film that was based on a book by Davis Grubb which in turn was based on real life events.  (There really was a man named Harry Powers who killed two women and three children) .  Powell is in the guise of a travelling preacher, but is like no man of the cloth in reality.  At the beginning of the movie he is caught and arrested for being in possession of a stolen vehicle.

At the same time, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is arrested for having committed robbery and murder.  Just before his arrest, however, he arranges to hide his booty with his son, John (Billy Chapin).  Only John and his sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) know the secret.  Their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), does not know of the secret.

Ben ends up in the same jail cell as Harry.  He mutters in his sleep about the hidden money, but Harry can't get the secret out of him.  Ben is executed for the murder, and Harry gets out after serving his time and immediately makes a beeline for the Harper's home.  He convinces everyone he is a legitimate preacher, and begins to woo Willa, meanwhile also trying to wangle the hiding place of the money from the children.

Harry eventually kills Willa.  Poor Shelley Winters.  That's twice she is killed in a movie, with an unscrupulous fiend trying to get access to her brood.  (She was also the mother of the teenager Lolita Haze  in Lolita, although James Mason didn't actually kill her to get access to her daughter.)  Harry then begins in earnest on John and Pearl.  Under threat to kill them, John tells Harry that the money is under a rock in the cellar.  (Not really the place, we already know it's in Pearl's doll, but Harry doesn't).  They trick Harry and run for their lives, escaping on a boat.

The children end up down river and become involved with an older widow woman, Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish).  But eventually Harry finds out to where the kids have escaped.

This one is a nail-biter to the bitter end, and you'll never be able to hear the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" without a twinge of fear in the back of your mind...  Mitchum is pure evil, but an evil that is more subdued and hidden.  He saved his best evil menace for a role he played 7 years later....

Cape Fear (1962)

Mitchum was cast in his most iconic psychopath role at the behest of his eventual co-star, Gregory Peck, who had bought the rights to the novel The Executioners by John D. McDonald.  Peck intended to play the role of Bowden, but he thought the meatier role was that of Cady and he wanted an actor with a great screen presence.  According to one source I read, Telly Savalas (who eventually played the role of Charlie Seivers, a private detective) was considered for the role.  Think about that one for a minute.  If you saw The Dirty Dozen you know he could pull of psychotic, but I just can't imagine anyone but Mitchum in the role.  Although Robert De Niro pulled off an incredible job in the Scorcese remake.

In Cape Fear, Mitchum is Max Cady. Cady just got released from doing a stretch in the penitentiary for rape.  A key instrument in his conviction was Sam Bowden, an attorney who witnessed and interrupted Cady's attack on his victim.   Cady spent 7 years in prison, nursing his grudge.  Upon his release he immediately heads to Savannah to confront his nemesis.

Bowden's first encounter with Cady is a rather intense moment as Cady reaches in the open window of Bowden's car and snatches his keys.  He then airs his grievances with Bowden, telling him how much he suffered in prison because Bowden had the temerity to act as a witness on the stand.  As Bowden leaves, Cady mutters that he's going to make Bowden see the situation from Cady's angle.

Cady then begins a systematic course of becoming a nuisance, all within the legal limits of the law.  Cady knows the law, he studied law during his time in prison and knows just what he can get away with.  Bowden attempts to have him arrested on vagrancy, and intimidate him with the help of his police friend (Martin Balsam).  It turns out, however, that Cady has money.  He sold his parents house after they died, while he was in prison.  So running him out of town on vagrancy is out.

Bowden is given the suggestion of hiring a private detective to follow Cady.  While Cady eventually does slip into his old ways and brutally batters and rapes a woman he picks up in a bar, she is totally humiliated and scared and refuses to testify against Cady.  So yet another avenue of getting rid of Cady is closed.

Bowden then hires a couple of thugs to beat up Cady.  But Cady overpowers them (3 to 1 and he still comes out on top).

 Cady's lawyer, an unscrupulous jurist in his own right, threatens to have Bowden disbarred.  At his wits end, Bowden plans to go down the only avenue he seems to have left;  lure him to Bowden's private houseboat on Cape Fear.

This one is a nail-biter in ways that the previous movie could only imagine.  Polly Bergen, as Sam's wife, Peggy, and Lori Martin as his young daughter Nancy are both put into separate incidences of jeopardy, and you will wonder just how far Sam will have to go to rid himself of this terror that has come into his life.

This one is actually going to be on TCM next month, if you are now sufficiently intrigued.  Check out your December 2016 schedule for the exact times.

Be sure to lock all your doors tonight when you get home, you never know what unexpected visitors might show up.  Sleep tight, folks.



  1. I am pretty sure I'm not gonna watch these movies - just reading the summaries terrified me! But yes, I agree - it takes a really talented actor to pull off a truly evil villain role.

    On a completely other note - I love the drive in theme and how you also embed in in the post:)

    1. Thanks for reading. Mitchum isn't always a bad boy. See the aforementioned El Dorado for a great sympathetic role.

  2. You know... I like Mitchum so well in so many movies that I am probably just never going to watch these because I don't want to see him go that dark. But maybe, one day.

    1. So tell me, did you avoid James Earl Jones movies after seeing (or at least hearing him) as Darth Vader?

    2. Ahh, but Vader gets a redemption arc. He doesn't remain a sadistic baddie. Also, while I enjoy JEJ, the only thing I've really loved him in was the "Mathnet" segment of Square One, and by the time I saw Star Wars, I had outgrown Square One.

      But really, there are just certain actors that I don't want to see portray bad guys, and also there are some kinds of bad guys I don't want to see at all. I could probably handle Cape Fear okay, actually. But violence against (or threatened against) children hurts me a lot, especially now that I've got kids, and even if the bad guy in Night of the Hunter wasn't someone I want to keep liking, I don't think I'd watch it. There are some kinds of evil I don't want to dwell on, even for two hours.

    3. I just imagine that the kids are the ones who used to run unsupervised all over the supermarket where I worked when I was younger.


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