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Does the film “Cape Fear” have any connection to the Cape Fear River?

Ben Steelman

Only the slightest.

The 1962 film “Cape Fear” (which was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese) was based on the 1957 novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald. The book is set in the fictional town of “New Essex,” in what appears to be central Florida, where MacDonald was living at the time. No mention is made of “Cape Fear” in the text.

The 1962 film was produced by Gregory Peck’s company Melville Productions. Peck initially wanted to play the psychotic ex-con Max Cady but instead took the role of the lawyer Sam Bowden and arranged for Robert Mitchum to take the Cady role.

In a later interview, Peck explained how “The Executioners” became “Cape Fear”:

” ‘The Executioners,’ I thought, was a kind of a turn-off of a title.” Peck said in an interview that later appeared on the film’s DVD release. “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.”

Intriguingly, Polly Bergen, who played Bowden’s wife, Peggy, in the 1962 “Cape Fear,” had been to the real Cape Fear twice — for the N.C. Azalea Festival, where she reigned as queen in 1956, the year before “The Executioners” was published.

According to IMDb, the 1991 remake was filmed almost entirely in Florida and in Savannah, except for a swimming pool scene shot in Burbank.

Incidentally, the 1962 “Cape Fear” was initially a box office flop, forcing Melville Productions to fold.


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