Classic Reel: Cape Fear

Cast: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Martin Balsam and Polly Bergen

Directed by: J. Lee Thompson

Year of Release: 1962

Plot: A lawyer and his family are terrorised by a very spiteful ex-convict who deeply resents him for causing his conviction.

Even non- old-school movie buffs would be drawn to this tension-filled thriller, adapted from James R. Webb’s novel- The Executioners.  Peck played a lawyer; later on playing the iconic lawyer  Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, which won him an Oscar for Best Actor. He was also the movie’s producer and given the plot and performance by the cast, it’s really shocking this well-made movie was a financial failure.  If you want a film noir that will leave you at the edge of your seat, Cape Fear is an example. Shot in black and white, the cleverly chosen music score for particular scenes and overall dark tone, this is a true classic.

In the opening scene, we see a creepy looking man in a hat (Robert Mitchum)  enter a courtroom and coldly watches Sam (Peck) at a hearing before accosting him in the parking lot, renewing his unwanted acquaintance. It is immediately established that this man is fresh out of prison and spells ‘big trouble’. There was a great deal of censorship back then so the words ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ were never used in the movie. But viewers would get the general idea when Sam gives his police friend (post- Psycho Martin Balsam) the reason Cady was stalking him.  Just like they would immediately guess what happened to the unfortunate girl Cady picked up at a bar; sounds are heard and the result is shown... her bruised face and overwhelming fright. A sadist, as well as a rapist, is cleverly presented, even though one does not exactly see him do it.  And he’s slick, he uses legal loopholes he learnt in prison to protect himself and makes his victim look bad. Cady was more than a disgruntled ex-convict, he’s a very spiteful one; hell-bent on revenge because of Sam’s testimony against him.

 Peck gave the great performance he’s forever known for but Mitchum was outstanding as the villain Max Cady, who radiated so much malevolence from the character. The maliciously smug expressions and leers on his face, disgusting arrogance and the relentless stalking, it heightened the tension and nail-biting fear and suspense clearly present all through the film. You feel Sam’s wife and daughter’s overwhelming fear and Sam’s frustration over how to end the sheer harassment legally. The private
investigator (Telly Savalas) Sam hired suggested to him, ‘the type like that is an animal; you’ve got to fight him like an animal'.
 Being a lawyer, Sam has to be ethical but after Cady sets his evil eye on his teenage daughter Nancy, Sam bares his teeth. ‘Don’t push your luck on me,’ he warns Cady, his temper flaring after the bastard makes a creepy remark about his wife. His breaking point comes after
Cady frightens Nancy but his wife (Polly Bergen in a supporting role) is quick to see what his anger doesn’t let him to, Cady’s subtle way of ruining him career-wise as well as personally. But what is a man to do when his family is being threatened? Defend them, even if he has to break the law doing it.
And Sam had no other option but to fight back when he’s pushed through the wall and out of legal options, leading to the movie’s final climax.

A thriller doesn’t need a lot of blood and gore to be regarded as a thriller. Cape Fear proved that.


-Cape Fear was remade in 1991, directed by Martin Scorsese. Max Cady was played by Robert De Niro, while Sam Bowden was played by Nick Nolte.

-Gregory Peck played Max’s new lawyer- Lee Heller, Robert Mitchum played Sam’s police friend Lt. Elgart and Martin Balsam played a judge in the 1991 remake.

-In the 1991 remake, Robert De Niro played an even more violent version of Max, whose reason for revenge was because Sam-  his former lawyer- suppressed evidence that would have either gotten him an acquittal or a lighter sentence after he sexually assaulted a young woman.

-The Simpson’s Season 5 Episode 2- Cape Feare- was a spoof of this movie.


Popular Posts