Savannah Scenes #1: Cape Fear (1962)

Forsyth Park

This seems like a good opportunity to initiate a little project I've been thinking about for a while. I'm gonna round up every movie I can get my hands on that was shot in Savannah and write about them! I bet you've watched all kinds of movies that were shot here and you didn't even know. I mean, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is kind of a giveaway, but how about Glory (which I haven't seen) or Something to Talk About (which I... also haven't seen) or The Last Song (which I'm not looking forward to seeing)? Not to mention the just-released independent film Savannah, starring Jim Caviezel, and the to-be released on October 11th CBGB with Alan Rickman! Ok, I guess it's a no-brainer a movie called Savannah would be shot here, but CBGB is about that club in New York. Savannah substituted for 1970s New York City in a movie about the birthplace of punk rock! That is hilarious and how would you ever have guessed if I didn't tell you? This project may morph into a movie-centric walking tour. There's only one movie tour in town and that's Savannah Movie Tours. I suppose I could ride along with them to snag some material, but I don't want to poach their stuff. Besides, Georgia's decade-long film making dry spell ended in about 2010 when the legislature finally put together a real sweet incentives package to lure filming back here. Worked like magic and now there are all sorts of new movie stories to assemble. I know several actors in town who have had small speaking parts in various movies or who got to be extras. I'm sure I can round up some good stuff. Hell, I was an extra myself in an episode of Ruby several years back. If you ever watched that show, by the way, my dad is a mailman and delivers the mail to her house.

So, I begin my new adventure with a silver screen classic: Cape Fear, the 1962 original starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. I became aware of this movie last summer when SCAD's Cinema Circle screened it at the Trustees Theater. I really wanted to go because Connect Savannah did a very nice write up about it and mentioned much of the movie was shot in Savannah. Robert Mitchum was even arrested for real in this town and put on a Georgia chain gang when he was about 14. Reportedly, he was not very happy to come back to Savannah for filming. I missed the show because of work or something and have been meaning to rent a copy ever since. How lucky I am it popped up under the Free Movies heading in Comcast On Demand!

I had a great time watching it last week. It was such a surprise to see the Universal International logo, then BAM! there was the Gordon monument in the middle of Wright Square:

Cape Fear, Gordon Monument, Wright Square, 1962

Yeah, I used my iPhone to snap pictures of the screen. There was probably a slicker way to get these images, but oh well. Technology fail, yeah!

Then POOF! there was the Customs House and Bay Street (and Robert Mitchum prancing through traffic like a total fool, a very dangerous thing to do on Bay Street today).

City Hall, Cape Fear, 1962, Robert Mitchum

Then Mitchum went sailing right inside the front door of City Hall. They used the actual interior of City Hall too. God, the set designer had the easiest job in the world for the first half of this movie. That old elevator shaft on Mitchum's right is still there and still looks just like that and they still use the damn thing:

Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah City Hall interior

For Mitchum's first ominous encounter with Gregory Peck, when he reaches in the window and snatches the keys out of his car, all that was done in a Bay Street parking lot just east of City Hall in front of the Cotton Exchange. Don't worry, I don't have any cheesy pictures of that. I was puzzled for a little while, though, by this shot right here:

Boar's Head, Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah

It's implied that's a restaurant in town, close to the docks. There is, in fact, a restaurant on River Street called The Boar's Head Grill and Tavern, but there's no way this shot could have been done anywhere near there. You would never see exposed shore and waves washing up anywhere along the waterfront. If you do, that means you've gotten your stupid self caught here in the middle of a hurricane. I had to review these few seconds a couple of times to convince myself this was a fake. It looks so much like the actual Boar's Head and yet not quite. The real Boar's Head says on their website they originally opened up in 1959. I wonder if someone saw that restaurant and decided to recreate the exterior in a more preferable location. The interiors were certainly done on a sound stage.

Later on in the movie, we have a clear view of the old Armstrong House, which is supposed to be the girls' school Gregory Peck's daughter attends:

Armstrong House, Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah

That's it there on the left. I only just now remembered Armstrong Junior College (Armstrong Atlantic State University these days) didn't leave that location and move to the south side until 1965. I'm so accustomed to walking by that house and knowing it's been a law firm for decades, it feels weird to look at it and know it was still a college at the time.

Just as Gregory Peck's movie daughter is getting out of school, we get these shots of Robert Mitchum-

Forsyth Park, fountain, Savannah, Cape Fear, 1962

Robert Mitchum, Forsyth Park, Savannah, Cape Fear, 1962

-striding through Forsyth Park as sinisterly as a man can stride anywhere. Of course our signature fountain had to be in this movie somewhere. I'm beginning to wonder if that's a legal requirement for every movie that shoots in this town.

Those are most of the recognizable bits that caught my eye. I'm pretty sure the Bowden family home (Gregory Peck's character) was also somewhere around here, but I didn't recognize it. Looked like it might be on Skidaway Island or something. If I owned a DVD of this movie with a commentary track, maybe it would say. Oh yeah, and some of the shots on the beach looked like they were actually done around the Tybee Pier. I don't know about the marina scenes when Peck first takes a swing at Mitchum, but one marina looks much like another to me. I guess they probably shot the cypress swamp/river scenes around here too. They would only have to drive a few miles outside of town to put in boats at the Ogeechee. All the finale with the houseboat and everything was clearly done on a sound stage back in L.A. A very well-built one, but still a sound stage.

So, my thoughts on the experience of watching Cape Fear? It blew my mind how much downtown Savannah still looks just the same. I did spot a few background items, the facades of which have since been restored, or buildings I know were torn down later in the 60s or 70s. But really, it looked to me like someone parked a bunch of vintage cars on the street, stocked up on some black and white film, and rolled camera. That movie could have been shot yesterday. As for the movie itself, the script is tight and tense, it tackles uncomfortable subject matter without being salacious about it, all the actors hit the right pitch, and all of the characters are well-developed and smart. Thrillers these days have an awful tendency to feature characters who compound their difficulties by making obviously stupid decisions. What I love about Cape Fear is that the good guys get deeper and deeper in trouble in spite of making all the right decisions. I think this movie is a noir masterpiece and it makes me proud to know it was shot here.

If you are a Cape Fear fan, as I now am, why sit at home and admire the setting from afar? Schedule a trip down here and take a walk with me in the very footsteps of Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck! I promise not to drown you, shoot you, or hit you in the head with a rock.