Cape Fear Movie Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review
Cape Fear Movie Review

With titles splashed luridly across the screen, as though announcing some 50's creature-feature, and Bernard Herrmann's demonic, skin-crawling main theme searing the nerves, the sunny vista of a North Carolina hamlet seems at odds with the mood being evoked. We are down south and an ill-wind has blown into town. Something mean-spirited has awoken and you just know that you are in for thrill-ride of heart-lurching proportions.

And Max Cady has just got out of prison with one thing on his mind – to make the lawyer who helped to put him away suffer.

For eight years, Cady (Robert Mitchum) has seethed and burned in a cell with nothing other than revenge on his mind. His vicious beating and abuse of a woman in a Baltimore parking lot found North Carolina lawyer, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) the saviour whose witness statement put him behind bars. Now on the outside, Cady, his body and mind honed and toned with but one distinct and wrathful purpose, commences a war upon the councillor and his family that is seemingly air-tight as far the law goes, the ex-con infiltrating every facet of Sam's life and closing in on him with a vice-like grip of studded-iron. He wants Sam to suffer something similar to the death-of-a-thousand-cuts, punishing him almost daily with threats, taunts and a suffocating sense of helplessness, gradually moving ever closer to those that Sam holds most dear and pushing the man-of-the-law to brink of despair and desperation. All the protection in the State – which means a strong ally in the local police chief (Martin Balsam), a tenacious private detective (Telly Savalas), some hired thugs and a staunch deputy – seems powerless to stem the tide of savage retribution until eventually, with nobody left to turn to, Sam is forced to fight Cady on his own brutish terms in order to protect his family from his despicable and unforgiving evil.

And a final showdown in the eerie, yet beautiful swamps of Cape Fear becomes the ultimate confrontation between good and evil.

Based upon the novel, The Executioners, from John D. MacDonald, director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns Of Navarone, Ice Cold In Alex) makes the skin clammy with the oppression of Savannah sweat, yet chills the marrow with a series of increasingly tense set-pieces and a ruthless momentum that absolutely refuses to let up, even for a moment. Creating an iconic and implacable bogeyman in the surly, vowel-drawling Cady, Thompson's nightmarish chiller moves like a shark through the deceptively calm veneer of the quaint black-and-white aesthetic. Anyone coming fresh to the film should jettison all thoughts of a cosy vintage drama because Cape Fear is a knuckle-duster of a movie, a kosh over the head of genre respectability and period apathy. Insidiously, it tears down the conventions and the sanctity of the law-abiding and posits a very unsettling truth – that if someone really wants to intimidate you then they can probably do it with virtual impunity. Cady runs rings around the authorities, all the while increasing the pressure on Bowden to make a mistake that will jeopardise his family. He is the burning fuse to Sam's imminent explosion, the countdown to an upstanding man's reversion to the brink of primal rage.

The main impetus for getting this masterpiece off the ground was Peck, himself. Having moved from United Artists to Universal he found he wanted to follow the then-popular trend of movie-stars forming their own production companies. So, treading in the footsteps of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Peck cast about for something suitable to get his creative juices flowing. Thus, in the middle of filming The Guns Of Navarone Peck persuaded Thompson, who was directing him alongside David Niven and Anthony Quinn, to read MacDonald's book, and the two decided that it would make a terrific thriller with some barnstorming character roles. It was also Peck who instigated the name change from The Executioners to Cape Fear, figuring that titles with geographical places in them were usually on the road to success. Plus Cape Fear was a splendidly mysterious moniker, suggestive of all sorts of night terrors and skulduggery, whereas MacDonald's title was a neon bludgeon that appeared to give too much away.

Mitchum is incredible. Always a force of nature, even in the twilight of his career, he had experience of portraying complete menace already. His classic turn as the cold-hearted bogus preacher-cum-child-catcher in Charles Laughton's marvellous midnight-fable Night Of The Hunter almost seems like a rehearsal for Max Cady. Having swapped his Bible-belt lyricism for an acid-dry line in veiled threats and scalpel-sharp mockery, he struts through the town – its bowelling alleys, its bars, its sleepy, sun-kissed boulevards and its pleasure-boating piers and jetties - with all the empowerment of his indomitable sociopathic malevolence, the purest, devoutest cock-of-the-walk. Unafraid of the law, unafraid of other thugs. Unafraid, full stop. His body a chiselled hunk of lean brawn, his eyes chipped from onyx, his heart carved from the deepest obsidian and his intentions single, linear, shark-like. Except a shark has no axe to grind, its depredations are not personal. Cady is six-foot of 100 per cent proof hatred. His only purpose is to torture, humiliate and wound. And he can do this both physically and psychologically, his knack for guile and cunning knows no bounds and, coupled with the distressing fact that he spent his time in prison (or “the bucket” as he calls it) studying law and now knows all the angles that he can exploit with legal immunity, he has become a veritable Moriarty-like fiend who can outwit and outmanoeuvre Sam at every turn.

Famously combustible on-set, Thompson and Peck knew exactly what they letting themselves in for when they hired Mitchum. The burly star even warned his director that he tended to “live his characters” on screen and off … and when this particular one was a drunk and a thug and a vicious rapist … well, brother, things were gonna get mighty interesting during the shoot! Mitchum, however, was a tremendously good actor and his wild attitude and volcanic unpredictability lent the role precisely the sort of hair-trigger excitement that the character needed. Every time he appears on screen we are completely unsure how he is going to act, or react to the circumstances that surround him. In one amazing sequence, when he spies Barrie Chase's wrong-side-of-the-tracks floozy Diane Taylor in a bar being chatted-up, his enormous presence literally sucks her into the vortex of his own dark aura … and, when the cops come in to roust him under Sam's counter-offensive campaign of harassment, he still walks over, under guard, and puts the moves on her. “Are you trying to pick me up?” the girl asks, turned-on by his animalistic display of ruthless indifference to the policemen flanking him. “Yeeessss! Yup” he replies, knowing full well that he has her in the palm of his hate-filled fist.

Peck guessed from the start that he would have his work cut out just trying to claw back some of the screen from Mitchum, but this was what he wanted. And Mitchum's Max Cady would loom over the entire film like a colossal thunderhead of overpowering oppression. In one of cinema's greatest cameo switcheroos, Mitchum would get to play Sam's friend, the very police chief out to nab Cady in Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake. You can almost see the knowing smirk on his sunken jowells as he contemplates Sam's predicament in the newer version.

Opposed to him are the Bowdens. And just around this time, you couldn't have asked for a more upstanding and noble hero than To Kill A Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, himself, Gregory Peck. The family unit is seen as sacred and untarnished. Obviously, this was a concession to the times and the social mores. The remake would fracture the bonds of the family from within, even going so far as to truthfully sully Sam's integrity, but Thompson's film wanted them all to remain steadfast and pure. In this way we could argue that it is too damn easy to hate Cady for what he is doing, the whole black and white clash of morals far too obvious. But this is precisely the point, and just why this original version works so well. Cady is a thoroughly bad lot. Even with the scumbags that we have out there on the streets preying on the innocent today, Cady's bold insinuations towards Nancy and his one-track determination to target her because it will cause the most damage to everyone else is so damned reprehensible that she needs to be as pure as the driven snow … because, ironically enough, this makes the situation more fairytale-like. She is Snow White and Max is the huntsman, only this is a huntsman who is acting upon his own own instincts and desires, and a huntsman who will not have a change of heart at the last minute. In making the daughter a more modern and sexually aware young woman, Scorsese brings a dose of reality to things, and this, in a curious sort of way, dilutes the hideousness of Cady's vile approaches. So for Thompson's take, the threat is even more ghastly and unthinkable.

And, therefore, we have to have a hero who very clearly wears the white hat … because to see how low he is forced to sink is all the more gut-wrenching as a consequence.

I've written at length about Peck in reviews for The Omen and The Bravados and I still say that he is a difficult actor to fully quantify and properly appreciate. He is brusque and assertive and staunchly direct. There is precious little warmth to his performances, no matter how good they are. Here, however, he delivers a pitch-perfect portrayal of a man who, from his very second scene in the film, is totally on-edge and on his guard. Sam is man of principle and strong moral fibre, Peck has epitomised this sort of character many times over but the gradual erosion that Cady's mind-games work upon his code of ethics is brilliant to watch. Peck's expression never changes, never alters at all, throughout this entire ordeal of systematic wearing-down. But with one glare and one accusatory waggle of a finger he asserts such a stoic command that only someone like Max Cady could remain completely unfazed. I've always thought that Peck looked a lot like the actor Powers Boothe (Southern Comfort, Extreme Prejudice), but here in Cape Fear, standing tall, slim and proudly in-shape, he actually resembles Hugh Jackman. You look at that brow, that stature and those eyes. When he buckles and gives in to the notion of natural justice and decides to take the law into his own hands, you don't even notice it at first but there has been an irrevocable, yet sly transformation in his demeanour. As seedy, corruptible lawyer Dave Grafton (Jack Kruschen) barracks him for various Cady-inspired misappropriations of authority, he doesn't lose control, or dignity. He maintains his composure, fully understanding that a fellow member of the bar, even one as slimy and underhanded as this, is merely doing his job. Whilst we just want to ram the ogre's teeth down his throat, Sam remains polite and keeps his decorum out of professional etiquette. Even when he gets Cady to the bar to, ahem, “negotiate” with him, Sam keeps calm and level-headed despite the immense provocation that his nemesis puts him under. Yet, as you watch, Peck has changed. Become more fragile, yet more committed at the same time. It is a sterling performance of towering fortitude and clung-to resolve.

And, just like with Mitchum, he would get to reverse his role in the remake and actually portray Cady's snake-in-the-grass councillor ... and do it with incredible evangelical gusto, too.

It is too easy to label Polly Bergen's performance as Sam's terrified wife, Peggy, as being one-note and lacking in depth. Neither Thompson, Peck, nor their screenwriter James R. Webb wanted to provide the Bowden's with much of a backstory. It just wasn't necessary. It is Cady with the colourful life, not the good guys. But, either way, Bergen does some exceptional work here. Her fears are vividly drawn, as is her bravery during the “baiting set-piece”. Let's face it, when she's finally cornered by Cady, she knows exactly what he is capable of doing to her … and her reactions, contorted with absolute dread and sinew-taut defiance, are still powerful and difficult to sit through. Her ceaseless screaming and imploring during this scene could also be interpreted as a deliberate intoxicant to the depraved and lustful Cady – Peggy doing her damnedest to ensure that he stays with her and not go seeking out her daughter. No, Bergen's performance is not at all one-note.

Thompson wanted Hayley Mills to play Nancy and he claimed that not being able to obtain the British child star clouded his direction of young Lori Martin. It is to her credit, then, that she makes the part of Nancy so indelible and haunting. She actually looks like a “small woman” - by which I mean that she is surprisingly diminutive in stature, just like a little girl would be, but she also has something about her that, well, let's put it this way, certainly goads Cady in his unsavoury desires. She almost seems like a full grown woman who has been merely miniaturised. I find it interesting that, after her dog has been poisoned to death by Cady, Peggy comforts her and urges her not to let “Daddy see you like this.” Now why is this? The poor girl is shocked and upset and there is a tear rolling down her otherwise confused face. This is precisely what Sam needs to see to shore-up his defensive resolve and courage. Or is this sage advice that the mother knows will prevent Sam from simply stalking off into the night to track Cady down and execute him in cold blood, which is exactly what he intends to do at a later point? Scorsese's remake is stuffed to the gills with such interpersonal ambiguity, but it is worth mentioning that Thompson's version has some psychological tricks and mysteries up its sleeve too. It may be infinitely more clear-cut, but there are still some satisfying shades of grey swirling around.

But the peripheral male support is also stalwart. Recruiting Psycho's Martin Balsam to become Sam's loyal confidante in Chief Mark Dutton instantly feels reassuring and we are comforted whenever he comes to the rescue, yet it appears that we've learned nothing. We were just as reassured by his solid and dependable presence when he went probing around old Mama Bates' spooky house on the hill behind that notorious motel, weren't we? And look what came of that. Likewise, as each of his tactics to thwart Cady comes undone, we become painfully aware that he is not the rock that we should be clinging to. And then there's the great Telly Savalas, seen here with hair, as Charlie Seivers, the detective who thinks he'll be there when Cady puts a foot wrong. The sequence when the battered and raped Diane Taylor visibly crumbles within her own living hell, we can see that even Seivers, who has arrived upon the scene too late to intervene, realises that they are up against someone much more formidable than he has ever encountered before. These are great actors … and they are underplaying their roles with unnerving accuracy. As each of their tricks and traps seems to collapse around their ears, the pressure upon Sam, and upon us, only intensifies … and looking to them for help becomes increasingly forlorn and, indeed, foolhardy.

Cape Fear blurs genre lines to become, what I firmly believe, is a horror film and not a thriller. Cady is a monster. The only differences between Max and Jason Vorhees or, especially that other vengeful spirit who should never have gotten out of his cell, Michael Myers, are that he doesn't kill as many people (although it is quite clear that he would kill anyone if they got in his way) and that he can talk. The evil power that he wields over people is something that you don't get with the average maniac. We only have to look at the sheer terror, guilt, revulsion and shame on Diane Taylor's face when she refuses to give evidence against him. It is not merely the horrible things that have been done to her – and this is very skilfully conveyed with her harrowed performance – it is the Michaevelian knowledge that Cady had about the awful consequences that testifying against him would have upon her. The damage that he causes is actually much more devastating than any monstrous rampage wrought about by some other deranged slasher hacking up the town, or the summer-camp. Shades of this malice-aforethought can be found in the scheming brains of Hannibal Lecter and Se7en's John Doe, both of whom set events in motion that only they can know the final result of. Only Cady is probably more believable an entity than either of those two classic modern-day monsters. And he is convincingly brutish in purely physical terms too. When he is surrounded by a pack of hired goons, we have absolutely no trouble believing that he can take all they can dish out and give it back to them, tenfold. Although it is his gloatingly victorious phone-call to the Bowdens that really makes the hairs bristle on the back of the neck. De Niro sculpted and tattooed his body to create such a malignant physicality in the redux – Mitchum merely sucked his belly in a little and thrust out his chest … but, man, he looked mean.

Technically, the film is a dream, too. There is ravishing photography from Sam Leavitt, who had previously lensed Otto Preminger's Anatomy Of A Murder and Stanley Kramer's brilliant The Defiant Ones. He understands the mechanics of what Thompson is after with each successive scene, carefully hemming things in with a claustrophobia that becomes cloying once Cady is on the warpath. He uses angles and shadows with exemplary flair, embracing the shady ardour of film noir with the dynamism seen in some action movies of the time. He whip-pans, zooms and tracks with style and measured finesse, always entrenched in the desire for a satisfyingly deep focus that revels in the unique location work and the stunning realism of the swamp and river sets. The finale is kinetic and highly charged. The set-piece with Nancy's flight back into the school after spying Cady strolling nonchalantly towards her is visually demanding. And just savour the evocative shadow work employed when Polly Bergen comes down the stairs after finding neither her husband or her daughter where they should be, or when Cady slowly advances upon her on the houseboat, slivers of light gleaming upon frightened eyes and revealing a glowering, predatory countenance in the darkness. I think it is because his photography is so damn good for the most part that one or two shots actually seem to cry out “TV Movie!!!”, though this could just be me being picky. But there are a couple of occasions, both at the culmination of some interior exchange, when his camera-movements make the shots seem as if they have hailed from The Fugitive or Perry Mason, almost by being too elaborate at the wrong time. Nevertheless, the cinematography is superlative for the majority of the time.

Massively spellbound by the work of Hitchcock, and most notably Vertigo and Psycho, Thompson even sought out the regular editor for the Master of Suspense in George Tomasini. Having studied Hitch's style avidly, Thompson found that he and Tomasini were thinking pretty much in-tandem with one-another. In fact, Thompson's direction was already pre-edited in his own head, and Tomasini's skill was the icing on the cake. The chase through the deserted school and the sudden shock-climax to the set-piece is a prime example of how well the two gelled.

And, going along with this Hitchcock template was the incredible music for the film.

The great Bernard Herrmann was, by this stage, already a major A-list composer. His extraordinary collaborations with both Alfred Hitchcock and then Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer were legendary even by 1962. Coming to Cape Fear, he did his customary weapon-selection and realised that his Psycho strings and woodwinds (always his favoured approach to cinematic madness) could be employed again, though in a much more macabre and deeply ominous fashion. His main theme, which is the signature voice for Max Cady, is a shrieking four-note phrase for banshee-like trombones that comes over like the bleating of some animal caught by a predator and about to be devoured. It is dredged from the pit of Cady's depravity and slices across the film to leave it gaping like a raw wound. His wavering, agitated strings lace the story with a spider's web of anxiety, his brassy ambuscades subduing even the stoutest of hearts.

Predictably, the film had censor-troubles on both sides of the Atlantic. The on-screen violence was one thing that could be reined-in, but removing the suggested sexual abuse was a different kettle of fish altogether. To trim Cady's attacks on the women and to attempt to smooth over his determination to rape Nancy would be quite catastrophic to the tone and direction of the movie. These were, after all, essential components to the plot and to the depiction of Max Cady's character. Thankfully then, Thompson mostly prevailed to get by with only the absolute minimum of changes made … and all of his implied sexual violence and intimidation remains. The film is naturally very disturbing, and I can't think of another production up until this one that contained such ferocity and danger towards a young teenage girl. Of course, there had been Night Of The Hunter, in which it just happened to be Mitchum dishing out the threats again, but Cape Fear went far, far beyond it in terms of shock value. The drowning scenes towards the finale are meaty enough, and the very sight of a chain in a hired thug's hands was immediately problematic, let alone visually depicting it being used – but, once again, it is the suggestion of what Cady does, or wants to do to the women that punches you in the guts every time. Once he gets to grips with Peggy on the houseboat he has cut loose on the Cape Fear River, you genuinely shudder as Mitchum's infamous yolk-smearing on Bergen's chest suddenly gives way to a flurry of violent slaps that you are thankful Thompson suddenly cuts away from.

Martin Scorsese was so enamoured and enthralled by what Thompson accomplished that he brought about his own remake of the film in 1991 with Robert De Niro taking on the role of Cady and Nick Nolte suffering under the madman's relentless campaign of terror. But his film, largely pantomimic and played with an exuberant and over-the-top vigour by De Niro, was more of a flamboyant and visually inventive homage to the original, even going as far as to cast both Peck and Mitchum in those nicely reversed roles and to re-use Herrmann's electrifying score, re-arranged and re-orchestrated by Elmer Bernstein, who would go on to score The Age Of Innocence for him. I'll be discussing the revamped Cape Fear comprehensively in its own review, of course. But, for now, I'll just say that although I love both movies a great deal, I think that Thompson's is the superior version. What could be gotten away with in a film in the much more liberal 90's, could barely even be hinted at back in 1962, and yet Thompson pushed and pushed and pushed the boundaries, rocking convention and bucking the accepted practices and, as a result, furnished the more shocking picture.

For me, Cape Fear possibly even nudges out Hitchcock's Psycho as the most taboo-breaking and morally-challenging film of the early sixties. It is just as disturbing nowadays to see Cady go about his one-man war, especially when directed at young Nancy, as it must have been to stunned audiences back then. It is an addictive movie too. I watched the older SD copy a couple of times in preparation for reviewing the BD … and I never tire of its rising air of menace. It examines the dangerous flip-sides of legal responsibility and moral fortitude, and asks us how far we would go to protect our loved ones when the law, itself, is rendered impotent by cold calculation.

It is a masterpiece.



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