Cape Fear (1962)
“Now, he had only one weapon left – Murder!…To prevent an even more shocking crime!”
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen
Synopsis: A lawyer’s family is stalked by a man he once helped put in jail.
Robert Mitchum (The Grass is Greener, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) was always more effective as a screen villain than a hero, and Max Cady, the insidious psychopath waging a war of attrition against upright counsellor Sam Bowden and his picture-perfect family in Cape Fear, is undoubtedly his most memorable incarnation. The Night of the Hunter’s religious fanatic Harry Powell might have been the showier part, but he never oozed menace in the way that Cady did. While Powell creates the impression that he’s moulded by his past, Cady gives off the stench of pure evil, of a measured, calculating malevolence constantly refined since birth into a concentrated, irresistible force. With those sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes, rugged features and huge physical presence, Mitchum exudes the kind of sleazy charm pulp writers thought the wrong kind of women found irresistible, and had the battered good looks indicative of an interesting past. Place a hand on his arm and you’d feel the energy thrumming just beneath the surface of his skin. Sitting in a bar, dressed predominantly in white, Cady only has to cast an unwavering gaze in the direction of a likely prospect for the trap to be set. Even as the police are hauling him off for questioning, he dismisses her male companion with a cursory glance and confidently informs her she has an hour to get rid of her friends before he comes back. Later, to send a chilling message of his capabilities to Bowden, he assaults and abuses the girl so badly that she’s too frightened to testify against him.
Cady’s an ex-con, fresh out of prison after serving eight years for assault and rape. The evidence of Bowden (Gregory Peck — Duel in the Sun, Roman Holiday) was instrumental in putting him away, and Cady’s been simmering slowly during his spell inside, figuring out how best to exact his revenge. He studied law while serving his term, paying particular attention to the rights of the detainee and to what lengths he could take his campaign against Bowden without actually breaking the law. Bowden discovers he learned well. Cady keeps turning up at places frequented by the Bowdens, but never threatens them, and successfully manipulates Bowden into swinging at him in front of witnesses. At a bowling alley, Cady lazily reveals he wanted to get a look at Bowden’s wife and daughter. ‘She’s getting just as juicy as your wife,’ he later observes of Nancy.
Predatory sex is never far from Cady’s mind. In an early shot, as he strolls to the local court to watch Bowden in action, we see him check out a couple of good-looking women as they pass him by. On the stairs leading up to the courtroom, a plain woman in glasses struggles with some heavy books, dropping one on the stairs in front of Cady. He walks past as if she isn’t there. Like an animal, he’s interested only in possessing those who satisfy his need for self-gratification, acting upon instinct with no thought to the consequences. It’s only natural, then, that as his revenge plan crystallises it takes the form of sexual assault against Bowden’s women, particularly as he knows it’s through them that he can hurt Bowden the most; that they are his weak spot. Unusually for a film made in the early 1960s, Cady reveals a paedophiliac aspect to his revenge plan by intimating that it’s Bowden’s pre-pubescent daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin), who will be his target. Director J Lee Thompson highlights the sexual threat to Nancy by emphasising her own burgeoning sexuality through the skimpy tight shorts she wears. It’s a device that’s a little uncomfortable to watch today, but which gives added impetus to the plot and lends a darker undertone to Cady’s lingering gaze when he looks upon the girl.
Cape Fear excels at illustrating the imbalance, both physical and psychological, between good and evil, exposing the unpalatable truth that the odds are stacked on the side of evil. Cady is mentally stronger than Bowden, who quickly begins to unravel psychologically when he realises that the laws that are supposed to protect him and his family are actually working in Cady’s favour. Although it’s Bowden who physically attacks Cady twice before Cady lays a hand on him, the blows he lands are ineffectual. In fact, it’s fair to say that Bowden fights like a little kid, his punches wild and uncoordinated. It’s only when he obtains a gun that he can at last best Cady, which perhaps suggests a pro-firearms agenda on the part of screenwriter James R. Webb or novelist John D. MacDonald, upon whose novel, The Executioners, Cape Fear is based.
Mitchum boasted that he acted Peck off the screen in this movie, and he was right. To be fair, the part of Cady was such a dominant one that Mitchum would have had to have been a complete incompetent not to win ownership of the picture. But even putting Mitchum’s performance aside, there is so much that’s right about Cape Fear that it’s difficult to understand why it’s not more highly regarded than it currently is. Its dark, brooding atmosphere hints at danger and violence, and is aided by a Bernard Herrmann score that perfectly encapsulates the enormous danger and overwhelming tension to which Bowden and his family are subjected (it might also have the unfortunate side-effect of putting certain members of the audience in mind of The Simpson’s corkscrew-haired bad guy Sideshow Bob). The tension escalates by degrees as the options open to Bowden are systematically closed off one by one, leaving a resort to violence — a meeting on Cady’s territory — the only channel left open to him.
Only the vaguely anti-climactic showdown between Cady and Bowden, and a cheap trick earlier in the picture when we’re led to believe Nancy is being stalked through a deserted school by Cady when it’s in fact a caretaker dressed in identical clothes to the bad guy, let down what is otherwise a chilling and effective examination of just how unprotected from manipulative and determined aggressors we truly are.
(Reviewed 10th August 2014)