|Directed by||J. Lee Thompson|
A sexually deviant sociopath (Robert Mitchum) stalks the wife (Polly Bergen) and daughter (Lori Martin) of the lawyer (Gregory Peck) who testified against him eight years earlier; when Peck’s attempt to secure protection from a policeman (Martin Balsam) and a private investigator (Telly Savalas) fail to keep Mitchum away from his family, he resorts to more violent tactics.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of this “tense, often uncomfortable melodrama” (remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese) is quite brief; he simply mentions that “the climax is extremely suspenseful”, and that “in a role almost as creepy as his bogus preacher in Night of the Hunter , Mitchum plays one of the screen’s first sexual sadists”. Indeed, it was reviewing NOTH recently that prompted me to revisit this later film, simply out of curiosity to see how Mitchum’s two performances compare — and I must say I believe that Mitchum’s Max Cady is the “creepier” of the two. Cady is a terrifyingly brutal bastard, an intelligent but deluded and narcissistic sociopath who uses humans as fodder for a sick scenario of vengeance he’s playing out in his head. Indeed, the entire storyline for Cape Fear is a cat-and-mouse affair, with Mitchum slyly licking his paws and waiting for the moment when he knows he’ll be able to “pounce” on his vulnerable prey.
We’re shown exactly what kind of a self-centered bastard Mitchum is during the opening sequence, as he jostles a woman carrying a stack of books, and walks right past her rather than stopping to help her pick them up. Later, an encounter between Mitchum and a “loose” woman (Barrie Chase) he picks up at a bar — then attacks so viciously she’s scared to say a word to the authorities — is used to excellent effect, indicating to us exactly the level of violence and sexual terror Mitchum is capable of inflicting; while the “attack” itself isn’t shown explicitly, the way in which director J. Lee Thompson shows both the terrifying moments beforehand, and Chase’s brutalized appearance after, are enough to convince us that Mitchum is someone of whom to be very, very scared. Meanwhile, Bernard Herrmann provides an effectively creepy film score, and accomplished DP Sam Leavitt’s b&w cinematography is consistently atmospheric.
With all of this said, I personally find Cape Fear too disturbing a film to recommend as more than a “once-must” thriller. While the entire story is told remarkably effectively, who wants to subject themselves to this kind of vicarious torture more than once? I know there are horror fans who live for the opportunity to exist with their hearts perpetually in their throats; but the type of menace offered up here is simply too freaky for my blood. The basic premise of the screenplay is that the law won’t — or can’t — protect citizens from an uncommitted crime, no matter how obvious the threat. To that end, as noted by Richard Scheib, Cape Fear is notable as “the first of a subgenre of films that placed the nuclear family and the values of ordinary American decency up against a wall”, with “direct echoes… found in films like Straw Dogs (1971) [and] Dirty Harry (1971).” While it may be astonishing to see Peck — starring as a pacifist lawyer in the same year’s To Kill a Mockingbird — resort to violence to protect his own family, one seriously can’t blame him.
Better than the remake
Martin Scorsese’s version of “Cape Fear” had its moments, but overall was something of a chaotic picture. Its “satire” (or lack thereof) didn’t really have a point, and its over-the-top visuals seemed to be compensating for a lack of content. It seemed less like Scorsese and more like DePalma.
Thompson’s original is better – more scary, more thrilling, more diabolical and realistic. Whereas De Niro’s scenery-chewing performance in the remake was almost laughable, Robert Mitchum’s spine-tingling turn here as Max Cady is one of the great human movie monsters – he’s a demon at spirit, no in physicality.
He seeks revenge on Gregory Peck and his family after Peck puts him away in jail for a few years.
Scorsese’s version was more updated and in that sense its general themes were more believable – Cady’s psyche was more exposed, his violence exploitative – and the romance between Cady and Sam Bowden’s daughter in the original is nonexistent. In fact, the extent of his harm towards her is when he chases her around an empty school.
Still, this is a better version of the movie because it has more strengths than the remake. Visually it’s not as impressive but it makes more of an impact as a thriller.
More than just creepy
Author: Spleen from Canberra, Australia
4 August 1999
For the first time Hitchcock was decisively beaten at his own game. This is one of the tensest films ever made, and also one of the most perfectly crafted. There are so many things right about it I can afford to concentrate on just two:
(1) Sam Bowden is a firm believer in the sanctity of civil liberties until Cady starts to stalk his family – and he remains a believer even then. He is asked if he really wants the police to have the power to arrest citizens on suspicion alone; and, although his family is in danger, he cannot honestly answer yes. `Cape Fear’ is clearly the product of a less bloodthirsty age. But it is the better for it: a clash between deeply held principles and deeply held desires isn’t at all interesting unless it really IS a clash – unless the principles are strong enough not to give way at the first breath of wind. And damn it, Bowden is right. The police do NOT have the right to arrest Cady. The potential tragedy is genuine: not something that could be cleaned up if only so-and-so would drop a few pointless scruples.
(2) Robert Mitchum really alarms us. I think it’s because his motivations are a little, but not entirely, opaque. When we first see him eyeing Bowden’s teen-aged daughter, we don’t know exactly what he’s thinking any more than Sam does. Is he sexually attracted to her? Does he want to kill her? Rape her? Is he indifferent but just trying to get a rise out of Sam? Indeed: what, exactly, does he want to do to Sam himself? We don’t know: and this uncertainty is worse than any precise knowledge.
I doubt I’ve said enough. `Cape Fear’ is riveting from first frame to last. It’s well shot, the acting is excellent, and Bernard Herrmann gives us his usual fitting score. It appeals to the intellect as much as to the pit of the stomach. Great stuff.
Stick With This One: The Original
Author: ccthemovieman-1 from United States
25 April 2006
Boy, this shows that you can still make a scary movie without a lot of blood, profanity and whatever. Hollywood didn’t learn that, however, featuring all of it less than a decade after this was made. The Martin Scorcese re-make of this movie is exactly what I’m talking about.
This original Cape Fear was legitimately scary, thanks to the performance of Robert Mitchum, who doesn’t need to resort to the f-word to be a tough, sick and really an evil character as he stalks Gregory Peck and his wife (Polly Bergen) and daughter (Lori Martin).
Bergan and Martin are two women I don’t see too much in films which is too bad. They did a lot more TV work than movies. Another thing you don’t see much anymore – a nice, sympathetic policeman – was also portrayed in here nicely by Martin Balsam.
The ending has some holes in it, to be sure, but overall it offers a good 106- minute suspense story.
Effective and somewhat ahead of it’s time
Author: SmileysWorld from United States
6 July 2002
There’s nothing worse than a con who knows his way around the law,and exploits that knowledge to the hilt.Robert Mitchum does this very expertly in the original and best version of Cape Fear.You want to reach out and strangle him,but he is within the law,so you can’t.This is the appeal of this film.It’s the fuel that keeps it going from start to finish.Along with Mitchum,we have Gregory Peck as the tormented lawyer who sent Mitchum’s character,Max Cady to jail for rape years earlier.
Having studied law while behind bars,Cady’s only intent with his gathering of this knowledge,is to torment Sam Bowden(Peck) and his family.It all leads to a classic finish.I truly believe that this film was a precursor to the thriller films of today.It was a sign of things to come in the cinematic world.It was way ahead of it’s time.Worthy of note here is Robert Mitchum’s ability to improvise almost to the point of becoming his character.The scene where he cracks the egg with his bare hand was not scripted,and the look of surprise on Polly Bergen’s face was indeed real.Outstanding film.
Upon its release, the film received positive but cautious feedback from critics due to the film’s content. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 95% of 20 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.6 out of 10.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times praised the “tough, tight script”, as well as the film’s “steady and starkly sinister style.” He went on to conclude his review by saying, “this is really one of those shockers that provokes disgust and regret.” The entertainment-trade magazine Variety reviewed the film as “competent and visually polished”, while commenting on Mitchum’s performance as a “menacing omnipresence