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.
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.
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.
“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.