Cape Fear (1962) J. Lee Thompson

Cape Fear Title

    Max Cady is one of the cinema’s most terrifying villains and no one personifies evil more than Robert Mitchum in this 1962 work. I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro however,  the 1992 remake while a fine film in of itself is not in the same class as the original film. “Cape Fear” was adapted by screenwriter James R. Webb from John D. MacDonald’s 1958 novel, “The Executioners” and was directed by J. Lee Thompson.

Cape Fear cady    After serving eight years in prison, Max Cady is released and comes to a small North Carolina town to find Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a lawyer he holds responsible for his guilty verdict and incarnation. From the first moment Cady appears on screen, he unleashes an assault of vicious menace that flows throughout the entire film. He quickly confronts Sam in his car letting him know he is back in town and out for revenge. He begins to follow Sam, making veiled threats against Sam’s wife and daughter and soon poison’s the Bowden’s dog. Sam attempts to  diffuse the situation when he asks police chief Mark Dutton( Martin Balsam) to intercede and find any excuse to arrest and or run Cady out of town.  However, Cady knows his rights, they cannot arrest him for vagrancy; he has money in the bank.  When that fails Sam hires three thugs to beat Cady up, then he hires a private detective (Telly Savalas). All attempts to convince Cady to leave are in vain. Cady’s one mistake may have been when he seduces and physically assaults a young woman (Barrie Chase) he picks up. However, his sheer terror frightened the girl to such an extent she is too scared to press charges and just wants to get out of town.

   capefear2 Cady is brazen, face to face with Bowden he insinuates how he will ravish his wife nad daughter. One of the most terrifying scenes occurs when Cady confronts Peggy Bowden (Polly Bergen), Sam’s wife, in the family boat where he cracks a raw egg in his hands and rubs it all over Peggy’s chest. The scene fades leaving you with the impression he is about to rape her. Bergen’s horrified look during the egg smearing is one of total shock and apparently real. The egg cracking and rubbing it across her neck and chest was not in the script and fully unexpected. Director Thompson and Mitchum planned the situation without letting Bergen in on the change in plans. From what I have read, Bergen was a bundle of nerves for a couple of days after filming this scene. The final confrontation is a brutal excruciating confrontation between the two men in the murky waters of Cape Fear.

    The film oozes violent sexual tension right from the beginning. When we first meet Cady, he eyes every woman that walks by like a lion in heat. Mitchum’s sleepy eyes and slow matter just reek with innuendo. Every threat he makes against Bowden’s wife and daughter are overflowing with sexual intimidation. When he eyes the young woman up in the bar, he informs her she got one hour to dump the guy she’s with.  For 1962, this film spill over with sexual tension.capefear1962 poster 2 450

    “Cape Fear” is filled with great performances but it is Robert Mitchum who walks away with the honors. He is just plain scary, and unlike DeNiro’s Max Cady, comes across as a real person and thus his menace is particularly terrifying.  It is a masterful performance, made to look so easy by Mitchum’s “I don’t give a damn” style. Gregory Peck is dogged as the protector of his family, though here he is not quite as righteous as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, another lawyer he portrayed that same year.  Director Thompson and Gregory Peck, who owned the rights to the book, had to convince Mitchum to accept the role, which he originally turned down. Interestingly, Haley Mills was considered for the role of Nancy, the daughter, but was still under contract to Disney who refused to let her do it. 

    An enormous part of the films success is Bernard Herrmann’s excitingly tense score, which contributes so much to the on edge atmosphere of the film, along with Sam Leavitt’s graphic black and white cinematography. Thompson’s direction is quickly paced with no wasted time moving the film along at an ever nerve wracking pace. 

    In 1992, when Martin Scorsese remade “Cape Fear” he stated that in the original film the Bowden family was too one note, too good and Cady pure evil. In his remake, Scorsese made the Bowden’s victims of martial infidelity and the daughter was no longer the sweet little girl but a rebellious sexy adventuress who is seduced and attracted to the disturbed Cady. He also turned Cady into a bible-frenzied fanatic of doomsday proportions.  The two films make interesting bookends.

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14 comments on “Cape Fear (1962) J. Lee Thompson

  1. R.D. Finch says:

    John, I agree that Mitchum pulls out all the stops and is truly terrifying in this excellent movie. The part is a good companion to his more subtle but equally menacing psycho in “Night of the Hunter.” What a great and versatile actor. It’s a crime he didn’t get the recognition he deserved at the time he was giving this and all his other memorable performances. According to notstarring.com, Peck was first offered the role of Max Cady but opted for the more appropriate role of Sam Bowden. Great anecdote about the raw egg incident, which was a new one to me.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D. – Night and the Hunter and this would make a great double feature. Mitchum is certainly one of the best. Interesting about Peck being offered the role of Cady, though I think he made the right decision in going with Sam Bowden

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  2. The remake is a textbook case of how elaborating on a story doesn’t necessarily enhance it. I’d agree that Peck is perhaps too much of a good guy, but that may have been necessary to sell the depravity and menace of Mitchum, who doesn’t have to play a madman to sell that menace. I actually think Mitchum is one of the best things about the remake. I like the way he throws off deflating lines like “I don’t know whether to book him or read him” or just “Well excuse me all over the place.” But in the original he’s a more powerful villain than De Niro in the remake because Mitchum’s Cady seems like someone you might encounter in the real world.

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    • John Greco says:

      Samuel — Agree totally about Mitchum’s realism making him a more dangerous character than DeNiro’s. Those are great lines you quote. Thanks

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    John, I couldn’t agree with you more that the J. Lee Thompson original far outshines the sledgehammer transcription that Scorsese and De Niro engineered in the re-make, though that film is hardly negligible. Mitchum is indeed untouchable in this role, and his quiet menace does trump De Niro’s more heavy-handed approach, but then again this material works much more effectively with subtlety. There’s little question that Leavitt’s black and white cinematography and Hermann’s score are vital components, as in the compelling strain of ‘violent sexual tension.’

    A sure-fire classic, brought to life vividly by this typically superlative treatment.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam – I think we all seem to be pretty much in agreement that the original is the better version and that Mitchum’s Cady is a far more evil presence than the “heavy-handed approach” by DeNiro. Thanks!

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  4. Dave says:

    As big of a Mitchum fan as I am, I have to admit to not having seen this… shocking, actually, which I think about it. But it’s one that has “fallen through the cracks” for me, so to speak… something I need to fix.

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  5. John Greco says:

    Dave- Do try and catch this one. I’m sure you will like it.

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  6. J.D. says:

    Interesting bit about the egg crushing/smearing scene. I also had not heard about that one! This is a great, great film and one when I happen to catch it on TV (and the Encore stations seem to show it a lot) I always am compelled to watch it until the end.

    I like your observation about how Mitchum’s take on Cady is more realistic and human. He’s not some demonized monster but a very real, creepy guy bent on revenge which makes what he does that much more scary.

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    • John Greco says:

      J.D. – as much as I like Scorsese’s work, his version does not touch the original. Both are good but the 1962 version is in many ways a lot more frightening.

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  7. John Streby says:

    The phrase “Over the top” is hardly better-defined than in the crafting of the Cady character in the Scorsese remake. Mitchum’s character was more scary because it is entirely plausable, whereas the DeNiro character is so overblown, he almost becomes a caricature. Also, the amazing ability of some to attribute all of their own self-made problems to others was never better exemplified in Mitchum’s character, but the same can’t be said as to the remake.

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    • John Greco says:

      “the amazing ability of some to attribute all of their own self-made problems to others was never better exemplified in Mitchum’s character, but the same can’t be said as to the remake.”

      This is so true John. Too many people blame others for problems they have inflicted upon themselves and this is exactly what Mitchum’s Cady does. I find the Scorsese film fun, over the top and cartoonish while the original is just plain terrifying! Thanks for your thoughts on this

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