Cape Fear

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I reviewed the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear a while ago, and have been meaning to catch up with this original version ever since. The two definitely have their differences; whereas the original is a more straightforward tale of revenge and menace, the remake complicates a few details of the story to make it more about guilt. The main thing to appreciate in the original is the shocking nature for an early 1960s film, made all the more shocking by Mitchum’s performance.

Many years ago, lawyer and family man Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) witnessed the assault on a young girl by Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) and testified against him in court, helping put him away. Now that Cady has been released, he makes it his personal mission to wreck havoc on Sam’s family in order to get revenge. In prison he studied the law, so he knows exactly how far he can carry his intimidation and render the local police force, headed up by Sam’s friend Chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), helpless. He starts by following the Sam, making vague threats, and even poisoning the family dog, though Sam can’t prove it. The police’s constant watch over Cady doesn’t prove any results and even causes him to retain his own lawyer to make them back down. As Cady gets closer and closer to Sam and his family, there’s even less he can do (inside the law) to stop him.

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The film doesn’t really beat around the bush about it, even though Cady’s exactly threat is not voiced straight out. His overall plan is to rape Sam’s twelve year old daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). Even more so than in the remake, the violence is gendered. It’s not as if men don’t get hurt in this movie because they do, but the biggest horror is that Cady is going to commit sexual violence on both Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and child and there’s really nothing he or the law can do about it. In the terrifying ending scene where Cady catches up with the Bowdens, he tells as much to Peggy as he’s assaulting her. And if no one will believe Peggy saying Cady raped her, they certainly won’t believe Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase), an unfortunate woman Cady gets mixed up with seeemingly just to pass the time. They can’t get her to testify against Cady and put him away for six months (he’s only get six months!) because the process of testifying is so brutal. And Bowden frames it like he needs her help. The threat of violence against women runs through almost every frame in this movie; it’s no accident that in a scene where Nancy thinks she is being chased through her school by Cady, the man is framed from the waist down.

The film, shot in mostly low contrast black and white, has a feeling of the mundane about it. This is not true in the final scene on the boat, which takes place at night and therefore does a lot more with shadows, but for a lot of scenes in the beginning and middle that take place in broad daylight, the visuals suggest something not that far out of the ordinary. If you walked in on most sections in this movie out of context, only Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score would tell you that something is wrong. When the film does switch gears somewhat in the nighttime scenes, you get a lot of dramatic low angles on Mitchum which are quite terrifying. The film also does some really nice deep focus stuff with Cady as well, where whoever is in the foreground is in focus and Cady is in the far background, also in focus, coming slowly closer.

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If the main terror of the film is violence against women and the law’s (personified by Sam Bowden) inability to stop it, this fear is personified in Max Cady. He is characterized as an unstoppable force, but the way Mitchum plays him has you filled with contempt for the character. There’s a gap between what he is able to get away with and how capable the character actually seems. The police and Bowden are always talking about how Cady is “too smart for that,” “that” being whatever plan they have to arrest him or get him to move away, but Mitchum doesn’t really seem to put the character’s intellect to the fore, just his unstoppable hatred. He goes dangerously close to the scenery-chewing that De Niro does in the remake without pushing it quite that far.

Though I find it hard to really put one over the other, I feel that the original does stand up to the remake (it’s not often that I write that sentence in that order). Mitchum’s performance here is quite chilling, and the level of violence is made even more so by the fact that it’s a movie from 1962. All around, it’s a very well executed thriller with an iconicly terrifying villain.

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“Go ahead. I just don’t give a damn.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review

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4 responses to “Cape Fear

  1. Mitchum was a beast!I love his performances in this, Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, to name just a few.

    • I still need to see The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but I can definitely agree with you on the rest of those performances. Such a great actor with a lot of iconic roles. He was definitely the stand out here in an otherwise very good film.

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