Thanks everyone for voting in the first Reader Request poll (that’s what I’m labeling these reviews). By a vote of five, the readers requested a review of the 1962 film Cape Fear. Cape Fear is one of my favorite movies, and my second favorite Robert Mitchum film (my favorite being Night of the Hunter which nabbed two votes). Most audiences know of the 1991 remake of this film directed by Martin Scorsese, and while that one is good, nothing compares to the original which takes on a more sinister tone due to our villain played by Robert Mitchum.
Newly released from prison, Max Cady (Mitchum) decides to stalk the family of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the friendly witness/lawyer whose testimony put Cady away. With the police unable to help Sam, due to Cady’s clever tactics, he must find a way to stop Cady before the convict terrorizes Bowden’s wife (Polly Bergen) and young daughter (Lori Martin).
There’s a lot to love about Cape Fear. First of all, with that title do you expect anything short of terror by the end of this film? The big climax of the movie takes place on the Cape Fear River….seriously Sam you couldn’t find a river called Happy Time or something? No, you set up the climax of events right between Massacre Lake and This Won’t End Well Street (I kid, I kid). As if you’re not already prepared to be scared the score, provided by iconic composer Bernard Herrmann will put you in the mood.
This is a movie you just don’t take notes during, as seen by the half sheet of paper I’m staring at. The film is tight from beginning to end with Cady setting up his intentions within the first thirty seconds. From there it’s a cat and mouse chase between Sam trying to follow the letter of the law to get Cady out of his life, and Cady perverting that in a way where he can stay right next to Sam and not be arrested. The duality of law and order plays out beautifully here as both Cady and Bowden have studied the laws for their own means. That’s one of the more logical steps the remake took in making Bowden the lawyer who put Cady away as opposed to being a witness who just happens to be a lawyer in this version.
Peck continues to play the strong lawyer, a character he would take to even greater heights in To Kill a Mockingbird (a film that came out just a month before this) and wow…those are two films to watch side by side. Especially considering the crux of this movie is Cady’s attempts to…terrorize (that’s putting it kindly) Bowden’s young daughter Nancy who is about five years older than Scout in TKM. You’re waiting throughout the films two-hour runtime for Bowden to drop that nice guy demeanor and just whale on Cady and before that you see Bowden follow the law, before resorting to hired hands attacking Cady before the big man to man fight, ultimately showing that a true man takes care of his own business.
That’s pretty much what Cape Fear comes to symbolize, pure, unadulterated machismo. You have two different breeds of masculinity competing throughout this movie. Bowden may be our hero, but you’ll remember Cady. There’s something so sexually magnetic about Robert Mitchum in this role as is the intention of his character. With that swagger and Panama hat, Cady walks between the raindrops and he knows how far he can push Bowden. He’s the worst of the worst, and you know he’s bad because he kills the family dog straight away! Every line out of Mitchum’s mouth is dripping with sleaze and double entendre. The character of Diane (Barrie Chase), a woman Cady picks up in a bar, describes him as “lustful, barbaric” and that’s exactly how to describe him. Cady represents the sexual man of the 1960s. A man who was tough, had no problem slapping a girl around but dammit if he’s not compelling (a character that would be identified with cool in James Bond). That scene with Diane is set up so amazing because Cady stalks her like prey.
Cady’s intentions with Nancy are where the film pushes the boundaries for 1962. It’s ultimately what I think makes this movie far more disturbing than the 1991 version. In that version Cady’s intentions were to mess with Sam Bowden and his family was the ultimate way to gain that revenge. In this version, Cady is a compulsive, sexual predator and Bowden’s family is what he wants first and foremost with revenge being the topper on the cake. A scene where Cady details how he got revenge on his ex-wife perfectly describes this as he tells how he “occupied her time” against her will. He’s a character who controls women and hates them for the slights they’ve done to him, whether real or imagined. The way he leers at Nancy on the houseboat is frightening, and his comment he makes to Sam about Nancy is shocking to this day, “she’s getting to be as juicy as her mama.”
The film has a few flaws worth mentioning, and by mentioning I mean I like to make fun of them. First off, the scene where Cady and Bowden are going down the Cape Fear river there’s monkey noises….what river are they on in the continental US that has monkeys? Second, I can’t state enough my hatred of Lori Martin as Nancy. She’s the blandest child actress I’ve seen. From what I’ve read apparently Hailey Mills was set to play Nancy and due to various reasons she dropped out. That would have been weird, seeing Mills from The Parent Trap in here, but she would have been far better than Martin. Martin has zero expression other than utter terror or completely blank. She says all her lines in some weird breathy whisper and even when she gets hit by a car it’s the funniest fall I’ve ever seen. She’s the one problem I have with this film, every time she shows up I want to punch her.
There’s so much I didn’t include in this review including amazing performances from Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas (both connected by way of the Twilight Zone!), and a heap of Mitchum one-liners and scenes including the terrifying and oddly erotic scene between Cady and Peggy Bowden. YouTube seems to have the film up in its entirety so here it is for your viewing pleasure:
If you don’t want to watch it via your computer screen (and who could blame you) it’s going to be on TCM this afternoon (set those Tivos). It’s a FANTASTIC movie with a performance from Robert Mitchum that will chill you to the bone. I have a few other Mitchum movies at my disposal (including the aforementioned Night of the Hunter and Rachel and the Stranger) so look for those in the future.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.