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Pre-crime in Carolina: ‘Cape Fear,’ ‘Minority Report’ and the cost of deterrence

Lobby card for J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear,” released by Universal Pictures in 1962.
Lobby card for J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear,” released by Universal Pictures in 1962.
Universal Pictures

By coincidence, I recently watched on consecutive nights “Cape Fear” (the fearful 1962 original, not the over-the-top 1991 Martin Scorsese remake) and “Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg’s 2002 big budget adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story.

If flipping through the channels and catching a few minutes of each, the two films would seem to bear little resemblance.

“Cape Fear,” directed by Englishman J. Lee Thompson—who’d hit the big time the previous year with the international epic “The Guns of Navarone”—is a minor key psychological thriller, filmed in black-and-white, featuring Robert Mitchum (in his most frightening performance this side of “The Night of the Hunter”) as a sadist who spent eight years in a jail cell doing push-ups and plotting revenge against Gregory Peck’s ambiguously upright lawyer, who was responsible for his sexual assault conviction.

“Minority Report,” starring Tom Cruise a few years prior to his infamous couch jumping incident and fall from grace as Hollywood’s most dependable star, is a special effects heavy sci-fi blockbuster set in Washington, D.C., circa 2054, about a police captain wrongfully accused of a future murder in a murder-free society that arrests “criminals” before the criminal act occurs by relying on the predictive powers of a trio of “pre-cogs”—oracles suspended in hyperconscious slumber who perpetually dream of imminent death.

But the stylistic link between “Cape Fear” and “Minority Report” can be found in the looming influence of a man who was at the tail end of the greatest phase of his career when the former film was made and who had been dead for 20 years when the latter was released: Alfred Hitchcock.

Thompson, who served as a dialogue coach on Hitch’s forgettable “Jamaica Inn” (1939), is at his most Hitchcockian in “Cape Fear,” creating suspense through the steady accumulation of unreleased tension and terror through that which is implied, not shown. For good measure, the score by regular Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann contains echoes of the high-pitched strings that accompanied the abrupt halt to Janet Leigh’s shower in “Psycho.”

Spielberg—who was originally attached to the “Cape Fear” remake but more or less traded projects with Scorsese, who was at one point considering directing “Schindler’s List”—owes the success of “Jaws” (and his enduring financial livelihood) to lessons learned from the Master of Suspense. He makes several visual allusions to Hitchcock films during the course of “Minority Report,” including “Vertigo” (in the first and best of several chase sequences), “Strangers on a Train” (when Cruise saves an eyeball from rolling through a drain, mimicking Robert Walker’s rescue of a pivotal cigarette lighter from a sewer grate) and “Rear Window” (when Cruise discovers the identity of the criminal mastermind through the analysis of side-by-side video files—an homage to the great scene in which Jimmy Stewart’s character realizes that something has been buried in a neighbor’s flower bed by comparing a photo slide to the view from his rear window.)

“Cape Fear” also shares with “Minority Report” its examination of the dangerous concept of punishment before crime. When Mitchum’s Max Cady is released from prison he begins to subtly terrorize Peck’s Sam Bowden and his family, though he does nothing that could be successfully prosecuted. He shows up at the bowling alley where they’re having a family night out. He makes suggestive remarks about the budding nubility of Bowden’s 14-year-old daughter. It’s implied that he killed the family dog, but there’s no proof.

The irony is that while Cady consistently proves to be complete scum, brutally raping and beating a woman (she refuses to press charges, out of shame and fear), it’s Bowden who commits the more prosecutable act by hiring a gang of thugs to beat up Cady.

“You show me a law that prevents crime. All we can do is act after the fact,” Martin Balsam’s police chief tells Bowden. “You remember the Hoffman murder? Before she was killed, Mrs. Hoffman came up here week after week telling us that her husband was going to do it, and I believed her. But I couldn’t arrest a man for something that might be in his mind. That’s dictatorship.”

The opening sequence of “Minority Report” provides a neat reversal of the traditional system of law and order described by Balsam. Acting on a cryptic vision provided by the pre-cogs, Cruise’s John Anderton and a team of agents raid a suburban home where a man and woman are engaged in the throes of passion, while her cuckolded husband sits unobserved by the side of the bed, a pair of scissors in his hand (a “Dial M for Murder” reference) and murder on his mind. Racing up the stairs, Anderton bursts into the bedroom in the nick of time and places the jealous husband under arrest for the future murder of his wife.

Just as the futuristic world Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick imagined in “2001: A Space Odyssey” never came to be at the turn of the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine that our nation’s capital will be navigated by flying cars and surveilled by spiderlike droids four decades from now. But are the legal concepts it postulates as far-fetched?

Released less than a year after the Patriot Act drastically expanded the crime prevention powers of the federal government, to the chagrin of many civil liberties groups, “Minority Report” might be viewed as the dystopian extreme of well-meaning but hastily crafted legislation designed to protect citizens from future crime.

And would Martin Balsam’s speech still make sense if a second remake of “Cape Fear” were to be set in the present day? Or would Sam Bowden, an astute lawyer, immediately stand his ground against Max Cady and eliminate the potential threat with a single, legal shot?