Cape Fear

Recently, I wrote about Brainstorm, commenting on its connections to classic film noir. Another movie from the same decade, albeit a few years earlier, with an arguably stronger affiliation to the world of noir is Cape Fear (1962). Sourced from the hard-boiled, pulpy writing of John D MacDonald, the film is a merciless examination of some of the darkest areas of human nature. While almost all the varied aspects of the filmmaking process, and the artists and craftsmen involved, blend together to produce the finished product, much of its power derives from the central performance of Robert Mitchum. For a man who initially didn’t want to do the picture, Mitchum fully inhabits his part and brings a level of feral brutality to the character that makes Max Cady one of the most memorable and formidable villains the screen has known.

The story is a relatively simple tale of revenge and retribution, a face-off not only between the principal characters but between the law and justice too. Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a successful lawyer, married with a teenage daughter and living in some comfort. A typical noir scenario frequently sees the protagonist cornered by circumstance, and what better way to achieve that than to have the past come crashing violently into the present. In Sam Bowden’s case the unwelcome past is represented by the swaggering, cigar-chomping figure of Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a man who’s spent eight years in prison on the basis of Bowden’s testimony against him. The question of his own guilt doesn’t occur to Cady, he simply regards himself as a victim of Bowden’s meddling and is thus intent on exacting vengeance for what he considers a life denied him. From his first encounter with Bowden outside the courthouse, a mock affability barely concealing his threats, Cady becomes omnipresent in the attorney’s life. Everywhere he goes, his arrogant nemesis seems to follow, and the veiled intimidation is gradually cranked up with each successive meeting. With the danger to his family becoming ever more apparent, Bowden turns to his friends in the police department in the hopes of using his establishment connections to rid himself of Cady. However, if he thinks he can bend the law to his benefit, he soon finds out how mistaken that assumption is – Cady is clever, cunning and more than capable of turning the tools of Bowden’s trade back on him. Bit by bit, the lawyer is drawn, through mounting desperation, towards that fine line between legality and criminality. Ultimately, Cady’s goading will lead him right up to the rim of the moral abyss and dare him to take that final fateful step.

J Lee Thompson had begun his directing career in British cinema a decade earlier and had made a number of films which showed he had a talent for both action and suspense. While working on The Guns of Navarone, he so impressed star Gregory Peck that he was promptly asked to take charge of this film. There are action sequences in Cape Fear, particularly during the harrowing climax, but it’s primarily a suspense picture, a dread infused journey of terror and moral compromise. As Bernard Herrmann’s ominous score pounds away, Thompson smoothly dials up the tension in tantalizing increments  – clever cutting and camera setups lending an air of danger to such mundane and traditionally secure settings as the family home and the daughter’s school. And cameraman Sam Leavitt plays his part too, alternating between the sun drenched Savannah locations where Sam Bowden walks tall and proud as a leading citizen, and the inky shadows of his home and later the river as his thoughts turn to subverting the law which he serves in order to protect his family.

I said at the start that Cape Fear is a film which benefits from fine work all round. Peck was always good at portraying upright, heroic types. The role of Sam Bowden was a comfortable fit for him, and he catches the slight stiffness that makes the character ever so vaguely unlikable very well; Peck had the ability to convey a kind of prim smugness at times, a quality which fits in nicely in the early stages when he’s calling in favors from Martin Balsam’s accommodating police chief in an effort to run Cady out of town. I found it interesting that Lee Server’s biography claims Mitchum regarded the Peck character as the bad guy until the brutality of the second half of the film clarifies matters. Actually, it not so hard to see where he was coming from with that theory as the story has the establishment figures closing ranks against the outsider in the early stages. Of course the full extent of Cady’s depravity and ruthlessness is starkly revealed as the story unfolds, but that faint touch of ambiguity at the beginning adds further interest to my mind.

Regardless of the solid work from Peck, Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase et al, it’s really Mitchum’s show all the way. He’d proved how well he could take on villainous roles in Charles Laughton’s dreamy and magical The Night of the Hunter but I feel playing Max Cady saw him step up to another level altogether. He’s genuinely electrifying every time he appears on screen, strutting and swaggering and dominating every frame with his sheer physicality. To refer again to the Server biography, it’s said that he invested himself in the role so deeply that he terrified Barrie Chase – something that’s clearly visible in the movie itself – and almost had to be restrained during the climactic assaults on both Bergen and Peck. The film was remade 30 years later by Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro as Cady, and featuring cameos by both Mitchum and Peck, but it didn’t work anywhere near as well for me. That remake, despite attempts to add some intriguing new aspects to the characters’ relationships, suffers badly from a cartoonish performance by De Niro that pales before the raw dynamism of Mitchum’s work – the sheer primal power of the man burns itself into your memory.

I just recently watched the film again on Blu-ray, which I picked up bundled with the remake for a very good price, and it benefits from the increased resolution but not in any startling way. If Cape Fear isn’t generally referred to as film noir, then it comes awfully close as far as I’m concerned. It’s dark, brooding and tough – the ending does see justice prevail, just, but it comes at a heavy price and nobody really walks away unscathed. For anyone laboring under the illusion that Mitchum tended to phone in his performances, or that J Lee Thompson was simply Cannon fodder, Cape Fear ought to put those myths permanently to rest.


51 thoughts on “Cape Fear

    • Thanks, John. I did think about tagging it as such but it generally seems to be referred to as falling into that amorphous post-noir category.
      Seeing as it earns your vote, I think I’ll flag it up as noir proper though.

      • So far as I’m concerned, if it walks like a noir and it quacks like a noir, then . . . wait a minute, let me work on that.

        I think there’s far too much defensiveness — or preciousness — among many writers on film noir as to what the term should encompass. In a way I understand the gated-community attitude: if you’re not careful, just about anything looks like film noir. At the same time, I find it unconscionable that the exclusionary definitions bar such obviously noir items as Cape Fear.

        • True enough, John. Many people do hold to a very narrow set of criteria when it comes to defining film noir, and I do understand the argument that the term loses much of its potency and meaning if it’s opened up too far. Generally, I try to take an inclusive as opposed to an exclusive view since, and I think this film illustrates the point well, there’s a good deal of fuzziness around the edges.

  1. If there is anything Robert Mitchum gave cinema fans, it’s two of its greatest villains. Night of the Hunter’s Harry Powell and from this Max Cady. I, too, would consider Cape Fear as noir. Another splendid write-up of a classic, Colin. Well done.

    • Thanks, Michael. Personally, I can never say enough good things about Mitchum – a truly underrated actor for much of his lifetime, partly due to his own downplaying of his art, but a magnetic screen presence who excelled when presented with the right opportunity.

  2. Haven’t seen this now in many years. Guess I was a kid when I saw it back then. I found it so unsettling though, that I’ve never the gumption to watch it again. Yeah, I can’t imagine De Niro successfully reprising Mitchum’s role.

    • I’d say it’s an unsettling film at the best of times, even more so if you were quite young when you saw it. I would have been perhaps late teens when I first caught it on TV, before the remake came out, and it certainly made an impression on me then. I saw the remake in the cinema and got a bit of a kick when Peck and Mitchum appeared for their cameos, but the movie as a whole didn’t measure up to the original for me.

  3. Agreed. De Niro’s over the top “movie monster” is not nearly as creepy as Mitchum’s original. Also, I had a hard time identifying with Scorsese’s unlikable new family. Juliette Lewis’s brilliant performance is the best thing about the remake.

    • Completely agree on the De Niro/ Mitchum matter – Mitchum was fearsome and wholly convincing.
      The new family dynamic of the remake tried to add another layer to the film, and Nick Nolte isn’t at all bad, but they come across poorly as a group and weaken the story somewhat.

  4. Hi Colin ,I have not seen this movie yet but I should see it as it has 2 great stars .On THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY post I just noticed where you asked if the subtitles could be disabled .I’m afraid they can’t be .However I do recommend it as it comes wiith BLUE RAY and DVD and has a great booklet with heaps of photos and liner notes even if I can’t read French.

    • I can certainly recommend you see this one – great cast, great score, excellent photography and fine direction from Thompson. Mitchum is mean and scary – aw, just watch it and you’ll see.

      Thanks on the feedback on The Wonderful Country too – I already have the very nice German release of the film as it happens. I’d certainly like it on Blu-ray but those forced subs irritate me, and the upcoming US edition will probably be locked to Region A – ah well…

    • I’m multi-region for DVD, and have been for many years now, but I’m locked into Region B as far as Blu-ray is concerned for now. It means I’ve had to make do with SD versions of Olive and Kino discs thus far but, for the most part, I’m just happy to have good versions of a lot of those titles.

  5. Mitchum was such a talent and I agree, still too underrated. His turns in this and Night of the Hunter outdo any horror monster or modern movie psycho. It’s amazing how he can get under your skin and disturb like that, when he’s otherwise a very likeable screen presence.

    • In itself, that says so much about the man’s talent, doesn’t it? Whatever the part, he was able to bring a lot of reality to it, an extremely dangerous kind in this case.

  6. Oh yeah, not only is it Noir, but Top Shelf Noir to boot. Since I first saw this it’s almost impossible to take the Scorsese version seriously, everything about the later film seems so misjudged – Cartoony a perfect description of De Niro.

    You’d be hard pressed to pick between Mitchum here and his performance in Night of the Hunter. I think they’re equally powerful but the faery tale aspect of Hunter possibly take the threat level down a notch.

    Is it weird I see a kind of thru-line between Cape Fear and Creature From the Black Lagoon? You know in Creature where they’ve caged him and he’s looking up at them just below the surface of the water, glowering with hate? Mitchum’s Max Cady is the Creature in human form. Absolutely terrifying.

    Chris B

    • Chris, I think that’s the thing with Mitchum. His underplaying of roles often got mistaken by some as a lack of interest on his part, fueled to an extent by his own self-deprecating attitude in public, whereas it was actually great subtlety and an inherent understanding of the way screen acting worked.

  7. Another beautiful review as expected. Agreed this is the better early version of Cape Fear. Other thrillers or noir I have liked from Gregory Peck are Mirage and Arabesque. Best regards.

    • Very kind of you, Chris. I’m very fond of those other Peck thrillers too. Of course they are, Arabesque in particular, much less intense in tone and mood.

  8. This is a movie that I was initially drawn to a kid for its Hitchcock feel and connections (Bernard Herrmann and editor George Tomasini) but this is very much its own animal. Thompson’s career pretty much peaked at around this point and you could argue that this is the movie that got him started on his slow descent into somewhat routine thrillers – this is certainly the most interesting of them. Allegedly the British censors demanded hundreds of cuts but I find this hard to believe – though there is a certain undeniable bluntness to it. The basic setup is, well, basic, and to a degree it is just as well that the actors are so good because it might seem all a bit one note otherwise. I think it easily a Noir piece (or anyway, neo-noir if one uses the end of the 50s as a cut off point from the classic period). I have not read the book I’m afraid (not very familiar with McDonald as I might be, though eh does seem to be an author very highly rated but only in his native USA).

    • Yes, “hundreds of cuts” sounds a little excessive, doesn’t it? Mind you, I can imagine that, considering the era, it may have given some people pause for thought – I could see that business with the egg raising a few eyebrows, for example.
      I’ve read very little of MacDonald’s work myself – I remember reading Murder in the Wind ages ago but can’t recall an awful lot about it now.

      • You do wonder sometimes how much of it is just PR fluff though the stories about the British censor cuts were certainly true enough at the time. I agree, that scene is nasty – but, hey, it is nasty and that leering tone is built-in to the film. I think the movie does its job but it is not especially socially redeeming, is it? I thought the remake was for the most part over-blown and a bit redundant, though quite a good laugh in its inflationary way

        • No, there’s nothing particularly redemptive going on – Peck’s character just about holds onto his his morals in the end, but it’s a close run thing. And the rather sour and cynical depiction of the workings of the justice system remain essentially unchanged throughout.
          Your last sentence there is probably as good a summing up the remake as any.

          • I do like its ambivalence, but it’s odd how it is used to throw balance in the favour of Cady. He remains a two-dimensional figure of hate – we are never invited to imagine that maybe he too used to be a nicer person but was warped in a way we might find sympathetic. As usual, it’s the seeming liberal who gets it in the neck for not quite having lived up to his own standards! Call me crazy, but I;d rather be the liberal who stumbles ethically than the homicidal sexual predator!

            • All very true. Mind you, I’ve wondered before if we are actually supposed to view Bowden as a genuine liberal figure, or if it’s just Peck’s presence which creates that impression. After all, he’s awfully chummy with the establishment.
              Of course there’s no doubt that Cady is the villain, but there is that slight ambiguity in the first half – his villainy is nicely revealed in stages, in my opinion.

                • Definitely. I wouldn’t want to suggest there’s ever any point where Cady is portrayed as some kind of nice guy who caught a bad break. It’s more a matter of how the degree of his villainy is made apparent – the reason for, and details of, his conviction isn’t made known for some time, and all the while his stalking of Bowden’s family grows more and more menacing. By the time we get to that scene with Barrie Chase, we know this is one very scary and dangerous guy. And of course the scene in the bar with Peck, where he recounts the way he paid back his ex-wife, is bone-chilling stuff.

                  • Must re-watch it Colin – over the years I’ve seen it several times, but not that recently to be fair. Saw the remake at the cinema and enjoyed it, though mainly for its superficial aspects (re-use fo the Herrmann score, titles by Saul and Elaine Bass, cameos by Mitchum, Peck and Balsam, and the great idea of getting Freddie Francis to be the DP).

  9. Terrific stuff, Colin. I can’t decide whether Mitchum is better in this or Night of the Hunter but either way, they’re two incredibly effective and nuanced performances. Where this one’s concerned particularly, I do like how the Scorsese update suffers from De Niro’s turn as a pretty straightforward hate machine as it just shows how much depth there was to Mitchum’s work.

    And I have to agree the update isn’t a patch on the original. I don’t think it’s bad necessarily, but one of the things I love most about the original is how Cady’s threats and potential for violence are suggested as much as they’re shown, which makes for a great deal of clever scripting and imagery, whereas Scorsese was of course able to just show whatever he wanted, which I thought lessened the overall effort – always better when this stuff is implied and your imagination does the rest. At least Scorsese stuck with Herrman’s brilliant score.

    • Thanks, Mike, and good point about the way much of the violence and depravity is never explicitly shown – that scene with Barrie Chase, for example, builds very ominously and then cuts away tellingly. But the build-up and the aftermath let us know all that’s necessary, and in fact the impact is arguably greater when our own imagination has to fill in the blanks.

  10. Something I’ve seen!!!

    I like this version a lot, but I am in the minority that doesn’t poo-poo the Scorcese version. You note in your commentary that Mitchum regarded Cady as the good guy in the story. The original skirts up close to that theory, but doesn’t really take it as far as they could have. In that regard of the plot, I prefer the Scorcese version. It takes the “Cady as wronged party” a bit further. I also liked the little hint of sexual pressure between DeNiro and Julianne Lewis.

    That being said, I thought Scorcese went a bit too far with having DeNiro portray Cady as some kind of Superman, who becomes a de facto lawyer in jail, is able to sneak around like a phantom, is able to overpower several men. At a certain point in the film (probably the final confrontation on the houseboat) I just started to go “Oh, come on!”. At some point he stops being a human being.

    Colin – Have you seen Fred Zinneman’s “Act of Violence”? It’s another notable Noir that has some of the same DNA as Cape Fear.

    Anyways, I enjoyed reading your commentary very much. Take care!

    • Yes, Jeff, I thought the remake had some worthwhile differences to offer in the way a greater note of ambiguity was attempted, but it was spoiled by that De Niro performance which played up the cartoon villain aspect right from the outset.

      And I certainly have seen Act of Violence – in fact, I wrote about the film here.

  11. I read the John D. MacDonald book of this , Colin, as well as several of his other novels. Enjoyed his writing very much. This was a lot of years ago though and I don’t know if his books are still available even. Another writer from the same era that I liked was Charles Williams – same doubts about availability there too.

  12. Actually, I have just looked and answered my own question – you can buy a copy of “CAPE FEAR” (the book) from ABE Books for £2.45. Lots of his other work can still be bought too. Good news.

  13. As a fan who champions Mitchum every chance I get this film cast a huge impression on me seeing it on the late show as a kid. Terrifying performance from Bob. Seething with brutality just under the surface that is just a force of nature when released. As much as I love the actors in the remake it can’t compare in the final analysis.

    • Very close to my own experience of and feeling about the film, Mike. It just shows how vital it is to get the tone of the central performance right. And I wouldn’t think of myself as one who’s against the idea of remakes – I’m inclined to at least give them a go and see what they have to offer.

  14. Colin, I knew there were two films based on JDM’s novel though I came to know of Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in the first one only after I read the book, which was incidentally my first by the author. I can imagine Peck as Sam Bowden but not Mitchum as Max Cady, perhaps because I haven’t seen too many of his films. He still doesn’t look the part from the pictures above, at least not as I imagined Cady to be in the novel. Only way to find out is to watch the film. Thanks for a fine review, enjoyed reading it.

    • Thanks, Prashant. Not having read the book myself, I find that very interesting. I wonder if your impression could be down to not having seen Mitchum in a lot of villainous roles? I’m rather curious now as to how the Cady character is portrayed in the novel – like yourself, I guess the only way to find out is by reading the book.

      • Great review as usual Colin. I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for you so I’ll just say Mitchum caught the character’s essence though the physical description of him in the book is probably closer to the Robert Shaw of From Russia With Love (and Shaw is the only actor I can think of who might have given Mitchum a run for his money in the role). Always thought this character was much scarier than the one in Night of the Hunter (which I also love). Never met anybody like the preacher. Known a few like Cady and crossing the path of such a man is a nightmare I’m very personally glad to have never experienced.

        On the UK cuts that were discussed earlier, the standard edition DVD, which I think came out in the nineties, has a lengthy documentary in which Thompson discusses the process at length. I don’t think it added up to anything like hundreds but he had to fight for a number of key scenes and some were indeed shortened. His far bigger regret was not getting Hayley Mills for the part that ultimately went to Lori Martin…Forty years later, you could still feel his disappointment though he acknowledged Martin did a good job.

        Gregory Peck protecting Hayley Mills from Robert Mitchum. The mind reels.

        Just happened to watch this last week so thanks again for the great additional insights.

        And, oh yeah. It’s transcendent noir.

        • Thanks. I could see Shaw in the role actually – he had the physical presence anyway.
          I still have the DVD and I have seen that ‘Making of’ feature – not for a while though – but i remember Thompson speaking about some contentious scenes and his wanting Mills for the movie. It’s a pity the Blu-ray dropped that feature as it was a worthwhile one.

  15. Colin

    Great write-up of a top flight bit of film making. This one blows the doors off the weak remake with DeNiro. Nobody looks as menacing as Mitchum when he wants to. This is one fine film that works from top to bottom with the entire cast and crew shining.
    Speaking of remakes, there was a 1977 re-do of Cape Fear called “Force of Evil” from the series TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED. It stars Lloyd Bridges in the Peck role, Pat Crowley, John Anderson, Eve Plumb and William Watson doing the Mitchum bit. Review up at the usual place. I have it on disc but it might be up on You-tube. It is a pretty good knock-off in my opinion.


    • It easily beats the remake for me and that’s mainly the Mitchum factor.
      I’m going to have a look at the episode you flagged up and the series as a whole. I’m not at all familiar with it and my first thought when I read your reference to it was the British Roald Dahl one.

  16. You want the 120 min tv film and not the 58 min tv episode. Go to You-Tube and type Force of Evil 1977 and the tv movie will pop up.

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