Until I saw this movie my only point of reference for Cape Fear was the hysterical Simpsons episode that parodied it. Seriously, check it out, it’s got Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes and an HMS Pinafore homage! The 1962 thriller film that inspired it as well as Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake, is a very interesting and unique movie for its time. Director J. Lee Thompson is clearly channelling Hictchcock to the point it could even be a Hitchcock film, what with it’s great suspense and psychotic tension.
When Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) a convicted rapist, is released from prison after eight years, he tracks down Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the lawyer who testified against him and whom he holds personally responsible for the years in prison that ruined his life. Always toeing the law, Cady stalks and torments Bowden and his family, particularly with an interest in his fourteen year old daughter, while Bowden tries to find a means to evade or put a stop to him.
The suspense in this movie is really tight. Every time you see Cady even though we see him commit no violent acts for the majority of the runtime, you fear for the Bowdens’ safety. After all, he probably killed their dog, what kind of person does that? And with each action Sam takes, going further into dubious if not outright illegal activity to ward Cady off, you wonder if it’s going to be enough. This is a guy willing to follow the Bowdens all the way to Cape Fear (which for being the movie’s title, the action doesn’t actually go there until the final act). You also wonder how much Sam’s compromising his own morals. The film builds really good suspense through its realism. You can legitimately see a person like Max Cady existing and being psychotic enough to torment the family of the man he holds responsible for his interment. It’s also believable how he’s unable to be pinned for anything, demonstrating knowledge of the legal system, staying just within the line by never putting himself in a position to be implicated.
Speaking of implication, I love how this movie for its time was able to suggest certain darker aspects to the plot and character history. Though yeah, censorship and movie ratings were pretty dumb then if not as ridiculous as today, I like how the restriction allowing them to only imply things made them seem more creepy. Some are really clear like the fact that Cady went to jail for rape and that he rapes another woman later in the film despite the word never being used. But others like Cady’s apparent paedophilia are only hinted at through dialogue and visual cues. The subtlety of it though adds to its grotesqueness and makes Cady a mysterious danger as you’re not sure what he’s capable of. Yet at the same time he still pulls off the apparent just sleazy personality that so far is keeping him out of jail.
Robert Mitchum is pretty great too. He brings his film noir anti-heroism to this flat out villain conveying through subtle expressions and gestures just how psychotic he is. He already has an imposing presence and gives off an aura of utter creepiness, something which comes in handy in the climax where he’s at his most frightening, spending a lot of the time shirtless subtly indicating a sexual threat in the situation (the improvisation in one scene of cracking an egg on Polly Bergen’s chest was certainly a nice slimy touch). The only match for him is the even greater performance of Gregory Peck. Sam is a decently interesting character, but Peck’s performance relates him all the more to the audience. He does feel like a well-meaning guy suddenly thrust into this nightmare. Peck’s not only physically capable for the climax (he’s not someone you’d ever want to cross), but he naturally carries the weight of his characters’ need to protect his family. He conveys perfectly the fear of a man stripped of his power in face of a psychotic. It doesn’t hurt that this was the same year as Peck’s career-defining performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and he happens to be playing a lawyer in this film too. Because of that you’re just naturally drawn to him and he earns your immediate trust. Polly Bergen and Lori Martin are very good as Sam’s wife and daughter, Bergen doing especially well, but Martin also being convincing in the fearful scenes. She is Cady’s primary target after all. Martin Balsam plays Sam’s friend, the chief of police, this time an inspector who doesn’t get killed. And even Telly Savalas appears in this movie as Sam’s P.I.
The best quality of this kind of movie though is that the fright factor is so much more immediate. Even horror movies about serial killers without any extraordinary factors like Silence of the Lambs great as they may be, have a degree of distance to them. Whereas Cape Fear feels like something that could happen to just about anyone. The environment up until Cape Fear is quite rurally basic. Cady’s not an obvious killer type, but rather someone who in passing seems very much like some guy we’ve all come across. Only this is a guy who creepily calls you after beating up the thugs you sent after him. It makes your skin crawl. Not too many movies that came out in this period were uncomfortable like this. And again the Hitchcock influence is pretty apparent, right down to a score by Bernard Herrmann that’s pretty thrilling.
But one thing you may be wondering is how does it compare to the arguably more famous 1991 remake from director Martin Scorsese. In short, though the grittiness really adds to the uncomfortable atmosphere, I wasn’t a fan of how Scorsese portrayed Sam as a cheating husband played by Nick Nolte who’s a bit of an asshole himself. He’s not someone you really root for and you’re more just rooting for Juliette Lewis not to get raped. I get the idea of making him more flawed but the audience sympathizes more when it seems to be an innocent noble man whose safety is being assaulted. But the story is about as good, though the climax may be too over-the-top, I love Mitchum and Peck appearing in reverse roles as a supporting hero and villain respectively, and as great as Mitchum was, Robert De Niro is much better and a whole lot scarier. However that hiding on the bottom of the car bit is almost as ludicrous as when The Simpsons did it in “Cape Feare”.
Overall, Cape Fear is a pretty thrilling film that takes a cleverly creative but also realistic premise and makes it thoroughly identifiable. Its cast of sympathetic characters led by a terrific Gregory Peck work well and Robert Mitchum makes for a quite threatening and reprehensible villain. It’s adequately suspenseful, greatly scored, and very ahead of its time with some of its subject matter. I’m definitely surprised director J. Lee Thompson isn’t more better known. This is definitely a film worth checking out during the season of terror.