Though the above headline never made it into the newspapers in 1962, it very well could have. Robert Mitchum, the tough, laconic, insolent tough guy with the sleepy eyes and laid back demeanor had been in films for twenty years when he returned to Savannah, Georgia to star as the murderous ex-con in the original version of the thriller Cape Fear. What the public did not know was that Mitchum had actually been arrested on charges of vagrancy in Savannah back in 1932, at the young age of 14, when he was riding the rails during the Depression in search of work. He spent his first night in Savannah in jail, was subsequently sentenced to the county chain gang, and managed to escape through the Georgia swamps to become one of the screen’s most enduring actors…
Robert Mitchum’s screen persona reflected his real life philosophy when he was quoted as saying, “There just isn’t any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying.” A veteran of westerns, film noir and leading roles, Mitchum had starred opposite some of Hollywood’s leading bombshells by the time he returned to Savannah including Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Ava Gardner. His appeal to audiences was such that after having been arrested for attending a “marijuana party” in 1948 and serving 43 days in the slammer, complete with photos documenting his ordeal featured in Life Magazine, Mitchum emerged unscathed. The public flocked to his films after his release, and his conviction was later overturned when it was revealed that he had been part of a set-up.
Once he went freelance in the mid 1950’s, with the power to choose his own roles rather than submit to those forced upon him by the studio system, Robert Michum began a new phase in his career. When so many contemporaries falling by the wayside with the collapse of the studios and longterm contracts, Mitchum’s career was flourishing thanks in large part to his uncontrived quality of acting. He was a man who had seen a lot, done a lot and wasn’t impressed by much, especially the artificiality of Hollywood. Returning to Savannah as an escaped con was not a position that Mitchum was eager to place himself in.
He landed in Savannah to begin Cape Fear with a chip on his shoulder, letting it be known that he did not hold the city or its people in high regard. This is where I am lucky enough to have a (somewhat) first-hand account of filming. As a proper young lady fresh out of school, my mother was able to watch Mitchum’s scenes being filmed on the street from her office several stories above. Gazing down on the film crew through the floor-to-ceiling window with her co-workers, the office phone started to ring. Before she could move to answer it, her boss, also taken in with the filming, remarked over her shoulder in his deadpan tone, “ Tell ‘em we’re on the set!”
Gradually Mitchum’s resolve to pay Chatham County back for his earlier mistreatment waned, and he was able to enjoy himself. The arrival of a convention of southern hairdressers, with females from beauty salons all over the area checking in at the DeSoto Hotel where Mitchum was staying, did much to lift his spirits. The ladies proved to be just the welcoming committee that he needed to warm up to Savannah.
As for the film, Cape Fear continues to hold up to the test of time. Robert Mitchum’s performance as the calmly maniacal Max Cady dominates the film, even when sharing screen time opposite the very talented Gregory Peck and Polly Bergen. Mitchum enjoyed submerging himself into a role, and the character of Max Cady comes across as a three-dimensional, manipulative, cunning, thoroughly evil stalker. Both Peck and Bergen attested to Mitchum’s dedication to his role, the latter later saying that she was genuinely terrified when filming an attack scene with him in the film climax. Cape Fear remains listed as one of the 100 greatest thrillers of all time by the American Film Institute. The AFI site also has an excellent Robert Mitchum Retrospective page that features excellent information on the actor and his films.
In 1991 when Cape Fear was remade, Martin Scorsese was able to coerce both Mitchum and Gregory Peck into making cameo appearances, but this time he turned the tables. Robert Mitchum became an upstanding deputy sheriff, and Gregory Peck played against type as Cady’s shyster lawyer. Robert DeNiro reprised Mitchum’s role as the villian, but his interpretation of the character, with multiple tattoos on his 5ft 8in frame, did not come close to invoking the menace of his predicesor. The original film score was used, proving further that the 1962 version had held up.
Aside from the plot, when viewing Cape Fear today it is fun for those who are familiar with Savannah to pick out particular locations and area landmarks. Because so much of Savannah has remained intact, several of the scenes are black and white reminders of the timelessness that we are surrounded by on a daily basis, only with cars, clothing and personal styles of the early 1960’s suffused into the two-hundred year old architecture (think Mad Men meets the heat and humidity of the Deep South). Click here for a list of films that were filmed in or around Savannah.
Footage of downtown Savannah, including Forsyth Park, Armstrong House, Factors Walk, and Bay Street, appear almost as they do today. The bowling alley on Victory Drive where Mitchum stalks Peck’s family is still in business. Grove Point Plantation, which serves as the exterior for Peck’s residence, was privately owned for many years by Great Dane and used for corporate guests and as a company retreat. Long-rumored to be haunted, I was priveleged enough to visit Grove Point as a college student, but that’s another story…
For more on the actor, turn to the exceptional biography Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don’t Care” by Lee Server.