We’re winding down this month’s J. Lee Thompson Film Festival on September 23rd & 24th with two of the director’s films that are very notable for their challenging subject matter amidst the era in which they were made. They’re also coincidentally linked by having their core stories revisited into new films years later by extremely talented filmmakers of their own era!
CAPE FEAR from 1962 is second only to THE GUNS OF NAVARONE as the best-known-and-loved Thompson production, its plot and characters already familiar to film lovers before reaching cultural immortality through Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) emerges from an eight-year prison sentence for rape, intent on upending the life of upstanding lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), whose testimony put him away. Cady eludes legal prosecution and Bowden increasingly compromises his principles to protect his family, leading to a violent reckoning in primal territory.
Robert Mitchum had come off two comparably light comedies, THE GRASS IS GREENER and THE LAST TIME I SAW ARCHIE when he menaced theatre audiences with his cunning, dangerous villain; though he’d played plenty of bad guys before, the depths of ugliness he exuded here are still chilling today. Peck meanwhile, coming off a fruitful collaboration with Thompson on NAVARONE, would follow up this performance with the role of a lifetime, portraying Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, also released in 1962.
Versatile pulp writer John D. MacDonald, who created the rogue opportunist Travis Archer for a 21-novel series, wrote the source book for FEAR, titled THE EXECUTIONERS, which, oddly enough, did not set any action in the titular water region of its two film adaptations. James R. Webb, later to win an Academy Award for HOW THE WEST WAS WON, also starring Gregory Peck, did the screenplay for this version.
A Holocaust survivor comes home from her ordeal to face potential new betrayal in 1965’s RETURN FROM THE ASHES. Dr. Mischa Wulf (Ingrid Thulin) arrives in France almost completely unrecognizable to those she knew before, including her chess-hustler husband Stanislaus (Maximilian Schell) and her long-resentful step-daughter Fabi (Samantha Eggar). Believing her to be someone else, they make her an offer to impersonate the “dead” wife to collect her inheritance. Mischa accepts the offer, beginning a real-life chess match of revelations and reversals.
Maximilian Schell, already an Academy Award winner for his role in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, is irresistibly charming as the conniving cad Stan in a very underappreciated performance. Thulin, a last-minute casting replacement for Gina Lollobrigida, in turn conveys the complexities of a woman scarred by internment, desperate to revive a passionate love, and aware of dark possibilities. Samantha Eggar and Herbert Lom also provide admirably layered supporting work.
ASHES began as a novel by prolific French mystery writer Hubert Monteilheit; another novel of his was adapted by prolific French director Claude Chabrol into the film HIGH HEELS with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Mia Farrow. The screenplay adaptation here is by CASABLANCA co-writer Julius J. Epstein. The novel was recently readapted by the late screenwriter Harun Farocki into the extremely well-received German romantic thriller PHOENIX by director Christian Petzold. You can read a detailed article here by yours truly about the connections and differences between the novel and its two film adaptations.
When Martin Scorsese adapted CAPE FEAR, it became his biggest box-office hit at the time. When Christian Petzold adapted ASHES into PHOENIX, it was one of the best-performing foreign-language releases in America last year and boosted the director’s profile stateside. As such, this J. Lee Thompson combo allows you to not only see two of his best films back to back, but also to see the roots behind the breakout works of other superb directors. Mark this as a must-see show!