Few classic actors could play the role of a villain better than Robert Mitchum. Although by all accounts a taciturn and self-effacing man in real life, when captured on screen, Mitchum was capable of conveying evil and danger with the simplest of gestures, and nowhere is this ability more evident than in J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller, ‘Cape Fear’.
After spending eight years in prison for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is released and promptly tracks down Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a Georgian lawyer whom he holds personally responsible for his conviction because Sam interrupted his attack and testified against him. Initially, Cady begins to stalk and subtly threaten Bowden's family, however things take a dark turn when he kills the Bowden family dog to show Sam that his threats are anything but idle.
Sam turns to police chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), and later private detective Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas) for help, but neither man can do much for Sam as Max has spent his time in prison studying up on the law, and thus knows how to terrorized Sam and his family without ever giving the police enough reason or proof to arrest him. As Cady’s stalking turns more violent, Sam decides to lure Cady into a trap in hopes of being able to kill him “in self-defense” — however, Sam underestimates Cady’s cunning, and the trap he sets up for Cady might end up trapping his wife and daughter instead.
Shot in black-and-white during a time when color films were becoming the new norm, Thompson claims in interviews that he was attempting to mimic and invoke the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock when he made ‘Cape Fear’, and while he doesn’t surpass the master of suspense, he does manage to do a commendable job of imitating him. The film’s tight editing and carefully constructed tension comes quite close to matching Hitchcock’s brand of suspense, though occasionally the building of anticipation and suspense can seem a little “mechanical” at times.
Although Robert Mitchum plays the film’s villain, it isn’t misleading to claim that he is the true star of ‘Cape Fear’. Gregory Peck, a fine actor in his own right, does the best he can with the role of Sam Bowden, but ultimately his hands are a bit tied by the script: In order to contrast the two leading men as greatly as possible, Sam is made up to be too straight-laced, too law-abiding and moral, and as a consequence his character comes off as either being bland or even quite naïve throughout the course of the film.
By contrast, Mitchum is utterly mesmerizing as the violent and psychotic Max Cady, his laconic delivery and oleaginous smile coming together to create one of the most sleazy, corrupt, and demented psychopaths ever caught on screen. Although censors prevented Thompson’s film from delving too deep into Cady’s crimes, this handicap actually turned into an asset as Thompson/Mitchum are forced to rely more on implication and hinting (and thus, allowing the audience’s imagination to go wild) than on graphic depiction, thereby adding a great deal of tension and depth to Mitchum’s veiled threats and menacing dialogue.
Polly Bergen does an admirable job as well as Sam’s wife Peggy. She might not have a whole lot to do during most of the film except for looking nervous and acting worried, but during the last act of the film when she’s confronted by Cady on the Bowden houseboat, the fight between Bergen’s Peggy and Mitchum’s Cady proves to be quite brutal (well, as “brutal” as the practices and standards of the 1960’s cinema would allow, at least). Telly “Kojak” Savalas is also quite interesting as Det. Sievers, his role a small one but nevertheless quite entertaining, and injecting some much needed personality.
When all is said and done, Thompson’s ‘Cape Fear’ is a thriller definitely worth seeing. Thompson’s direction, coupled with Mitchum’s acting (as well as the acting of the rest of the cast) create an intoxicating and atmospheric thriller that substitutes shocks and gore for appalling hints and menacing suggestions, and manages to entertain its audience throughout the course of its run, even though the picture is anything but flawless.
Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.