Cape Fear (1962)

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: James R. Webb (based on the novel The Executioners) by John D. MacDonald)
Stars: Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Police Chief Mark Dutton), Jack Kruschen (Dave Grafton), Telly Savalas (Charles Sievers), Barrie Chase (Diane Taylor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: USA
Cape Fear DVD Cover

Cape Fear is a single-minded thriller about a civilized man's forced descent into violence in order to protect his family from a sadistic monster. It is fueled by the same ideology that drove Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), that is, in some cases, violence is the only answer. This ideology makes for a disturbing, evocative undercurrent, but no matter how repulsive it looks on paper, its appeal to a certain primal defensive urge is undeniable.

The main purpose of Cape Fear is to thrill and shock, which it did when first released. Writing seven years after its release, the late film critic Pauline Kael wrote that Cape Fear "was so effective at scaring the hell out of the audience that is was generally disparaged and attacked back in 1962 as a pointless exercise in terror." Those who saw it as "pointless" back then (and now) missed the boat, not only because movies as a medium are designed by their very nature to thrill and excite us, but also because the statement Cape Fear makes about human nature, while certainly questionable and bordering on a fascist impulse to destroy, is quite powerful.

Gregory Peck stars as Sam Bowden, a successful attorney in a small town in Georgia. This was the same year that Peck won an Oscar for starring in Robert Mulligan's film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he played another thoroughly decent, upstanding Southern attorney. However, it is inconceivable that the events that happen to Sam Bowden in Cape Fear could ever happen to Atticus Finch, and even if they did, one imagines (or at least hopes) that Atticus' response would have been quite different.

Sam has a loving wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen), and a vibrant preteen daughter named Nancy (Lori Martin). They are well known and liked in the community and they live in a spacious house with a dog and two cars—in other words, they have the perfect Americana existence. Perfect, that is, until an ex-con named Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) appears in town one day. Cady has just been released after "eight years, four months, and fourteen days" in prison, every second of which he blames on Sam because Sam was a key eyewitness in his conviction for brutally assaulting a woman. Cady becomes a constant shadow in Sam's life, appearing everywhere he goes, hiding his menacing intents with banal social formalities.

Mitchum underplays Cady brilliantly, constantly suggesting a core of pure maliciousness cloaked in an intimidating exterior that is, nevertheless, seemingly reserved. Everything Cady says has a sadistic twinge to it, and his eyes glint constantly with barely repressed brutality. It is key to the movie's tension that Cady constantly threaten Sam and, more importantly, his family without ever appearing to be doing so. Cady is not just violent, he's clever, which means that he finds ways to turn Sam's weapons of defense—most notably law enforcement and the letter of the law itself—against him.

The plot tracks Sam's slow spiral into violence as all other possibilities prove futile. Warnings and harassment by the police do not deter Cady in the least, and having him tracked by a private detective (Telly Savalas) does little. When Cady's threats start moving closer to home, Sam feels he has no choice but to find a way to kill him. Seeing Gregory Peck, known in cinematic terms as an upstanding, righteous man, plotting to kill Cady in cold blood has a vivid thrill to it all its own. However, it is also tempered by the fact that Sam does not become a vigilante, striking out against those who represent lawlessness, but actively defending his home and family.

Yet, at the same time, the primal simplicity of the story—absolute good versus absolute evil—is unnervingly complicated by the movie's message, which seems to be that good can fight evil only on evil's terms. Cady is a despicable monster through and through with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Thus, Sam cannot use simple law and order against him; Cady's villainy transcends such social institutions, and Sam must become just as vicious and clever as Cady in order to survive. Society having failed him, he and Cady must fight as animals. The tense resonance between the Sam the good and Cady the evil is palpable, and director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone), working in a craftsman-like, pseudo-Hitchcock fashion, milks it for all its worth, especially once Sam begins moving down to Cady's level.

Based on the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald and adapted by James R. Webb (Cheyenne Autumn), Cape Fear was made in the early 1960s in the waning days of the Production Code Administration. It is testament to the PCA's weakened condition that, despite being submitted to the board and edited for content, so much salacious material managed to slip through. One of the movie's most noxious ideas is that Cady has no real intention of harming Sam himself; rather, he wants to hurt him where it hurts most, by violating his wife and daughter. The PCA demanded that there be no overtones that Cady wants to rape the daughter who, although played by Lori Martin (the lead in the National VelvetTV series) when was 15, looks all of 12. Yet, it is plainly clear that this is exactly what Cady wants to do, both in dialogue ("Your daughter is getting to be just as juicy as your wife") and action (the movie's tensest moment is when Cady has Nancy trapped alone inside a house).

Ultimately, Cape Fear works best as a twisted nail-biter, punctuated brilliantly with an apocalyptic score by Bernard Herrmann that is, in addition to his scores for Psycho (1960) and Taxi Driver (1976), his best work (this is borne our by the fact that, when he remade the film in 1991, director Martin Scorsese used the score verbatim, rather than commissioning a new one). It is not hard to put yourself in Sam's shoes and experience his frustration as all civilized means of protecting those he loves are not only lost to him, but actively turned against him.

Violence as an answer to violence is always revolting in theory, but Cape Fear stacks the deck so firmly against its good-hearted protagonist that you can't blame him for sinking to Cady's level. One could blame the movie for promoting this reactionary ideology, but Thompson mitigates its effect with his handling of the final scene. At the end, we see Sam and his family riding away from the place of their last stand against Cady, and the blank looks on their faces create a disheartening ambiguity to suggest that, even in victory, they have been defeated because of what they had to resort to.

Cape Fear DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioDolby Digital 2.0 Monaural
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
SupplementsMaking of Cape Fear documentary
Production photographs
Production notes
Cast and filmmaker biographies
Distributor Universal Pictures

The image quality on this disc is outstanding. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the black-and-white imagery is amazingly clear for a movie that is pushing 40 years in age, with only a bare minimum of nicks and specks. The image is clear and sharp, with excellent detail, solid black levels, only minute traces of grain, and beautiful gradations of gray. This is the best I have ever seen this movie look.

The Dolby Digital two-channel monaural soundtrack is clear, but limited. Bernard Herrmann's powerful score sounds clean, but the fidelity and range are understandably limited by the monaural mix. Dialogue is always clear and understandable throughout.

Although not billed as a "Collector's Edition," Cape Fear does contain a solid 27-minute making-of documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau, who has done such a fine job on so many other making-of documentaries included on DVDs from several studios. The interviews in The Making of Cape Fear are limited to producer/star Gregory Peck and director J. Lee Thompson, but together they paint an interesting portrait of the film's production. There are some interesting revelations about the production, from the explosive environment created by Robert Mitchum's presence, to Thompson's admission that he didn't treat Lori Martin very well because he had wanted Hayley Mills in the roll of Nancy, to the unavoidable censorship problems the movie faced, especially in England.

In addition to the documentary, this disc contains a five-minute production photograph montage that includes both shots of the cast as well as poster art, an original theatrical trailer presented in full-frame, and a good set of production notes and cast and crew filmographies.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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