Classic Flix Review: Cape Fear (1962)

Greetings, once again! It isn’t often that I’ve been given the opportunity to indulge in a Trifecta or triple play regarding one of Hollywood’s premier Tough Guys, Robert Mitchum. I covered his Scary attributes in The Night of the Hunter. His being made for the genre of Noir in Out of the Past. Now, I want to delve into the actor’s ability to basically write the book for being a malevolent nemesis in one of, if not the first, great Psychological Thrillers in film!

Cape Fear (1962)

Made in 1962 and directed by J. Lee Thompson. With a screenplay by James R. Webb from the John D. MacDonald novel, The Executioners. The film begins in bright, sunny Savannah, Georgia. In and amongst the city’s square whose busy, intersecting streets are full of some of the finest big, shiny, bullet bumpered and finned cars of that time. Weaving between them is Max Cady. Recently released convict with a Gibraltar-sized chip on his shoulder after spending eight years for a rape charge in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tall, broad and obnoxiously brooding. With a Panama Hat and a large, vile cigar stuck in his face. Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady confidently, nonchalantly revels in a role that reeks and sweats of malevolently boiling evil. Cady climbs the steps of the court house. Knocking some books from the arms of a female clerk, without a backward glance on his way up the stair case. Cady finds the proper court room for a look at defense attorney, family man and pillar of the community; Sam Bowden. Magnificently played by Gregory Peck. With hints of General Frank Savage in Twelve O’ Clock High and just beginning to gently grasp the mojo of Atticus Fitch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Equal parts stoic and humane. Peck is in superb form as the man whose testimony had put Cady away.

Cady takes a seat in the back of the court and sizes Bowden up as the counselor argues against a continuance and finds Bowden wanting. Outside the court house. Cady reacquaints himself with the good counselor. Hinting that he is going to be around for a while and they have some catching up to do with typical non-threatening, Jailhouse Lawyer hubris. Bowden takes this all with a grain of salt as he returns to hearth and home. Dinner and bowling afterwards. While at the lanes, Bowden senses more than sees Cady having a beer and eying his wife, Peggy. Well and dutifully played by Polly Bergen in one of her rare cinematic roles. And his daughter, Nancy. All of fifteen and deftly played by Lori Martin. No longer a child, but not a woman. With about one one hundredth of the angst and drama associated with that age today. Definitely Daddy’s little girl.

Bowden feels a chill go up his spine. Misses an easy spare and decides to call his friend, Police Chief Mark Dutton to see if there might be a way to persuade of roust Cady into leaving their fair city. Terrain very familiar to Dutton.  Realized with a career cop’s mindset and perseverance by always reliable Martin Balsam. Who suggests checking on Cady’s finances and parole officer to possibly gain some leverage. The following morning becomes evening and finds Cady in a smoky basement bar quietly flirting with a stunning brunette with a taste for slumming. Barrie Chase, whose time and scenes are brief, but part and parcel of what is to come.

As if on cue, Dutton and a clutch of cops arrive and take Cady downtown. Where Cady is surprisingly prepared for evening’s events. Down to a bankbook with $5,400 and the business card of Cady’s personal physician, should blood or a physical be needed. Vagrancy and drunk and disorderly go out the window as Cady leaves to up the ante and pick up where he left off. Tormenting his quarry the next afternoon by poisoning the Boden’s dog. Then taking off that night in his pickup truck. With the brunette from the previous night by his side. Discovering too late the dangers of walking on the wild side.

A phone call brings Dutton, his entourage and recently hired private detective, Charles Sievers. Telly Savalas being Telly Savalas with hair and a seersucker suit to a flea bag hotel. Where Ms. Taylor doesn’t say much of anything useful as she packs her things and wants to get far, far away. Frustrated, Sievers suggests using some off the books talent to find and possibly punish Cady. Bowden balks and the next afternoon, his wife and daughter go into town to shop. Nancy wanders off towards the library and finds Cady in slow ominous pursuit. Nancy panic. Runs through halls and out into traffic and is almost struck by an oncoming car. Her mom finds her and Sam returns from  work to close to sheer pandemonium. Peggy is close to freaking out while Nancy is in bed, sedated.

Close to being at his wits’ end. Bowden finds Cady at a rather upscale bar. Where Cady details his life immediately after being released from prison. Where he found his wife who had divorced him while in stir. Kidnapped her for a ‘Second Honeymoon’ that lasted about two weeks. Then had her write her new husband a ‘Dear John’ letter full of dirty words. Hinting that he may have beaten his ex half to death in the process. Cady slyly photocopied the letter before it was mailed and had the copy mailed to his lawyer.

Bowden calls Sievers and tells him to unleash the hounds. To no avail. Cady is attacked under a pier by what looks like three leg breakers with appropriate accessories. Bicycle chain. Meat hook and switchblade. Cady takes a shot below the ribs from the chain. Gets really mad and sends the three to the hospital, but not before they talk. Now with the upper hand, Cady hires himself a nice bleeding heart, liberal civil rights lawyer to have Bowden disbarred. Then calls Bowden and tells him that he has something in special in store for his wife and daughter. Knowing that Sam will be in Atlanta on other business.

The good counselor gets clever and creative. Arranging for his wife and daughter to be on their house boat on the Cape Fear River. While Sam flies to Atlanta and doubles back by rental car. To lay an ambush with his family as bait while he and an off duty stand guard.

I’ll leave it right here, so as not to violate Spoiler Territory.

What Makes This Film Good?

A well assembled cast of proven A-List talent telling a tale under the masterful touch of director, Thompson. Who had held the reins previously for Mr. Peck in The Guns of Navarone. Working from a tense, compact screenplay derived from the novel by John D. MacDonald, of Travis McGee fame. A writer well versed in the illicit goings on along the southern seaboard.

Reinforced by mood drenched, shadowy, sometimes sweat-sheened B&W cinematography by Samuel Leavitt, who knows the value of darkness. And an ominous cello rich and brass soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. If you are one of those who think the opening tracts of John Williams’ work in Jaws is the yardstick by which others are measured. Sit back to be swept away on a roller coaster by a true master!

Film editing by George Tomasini is fluid with no wasted scenes. Set direction by tried and true Oliver Emert works with nary a flaw. Wrapping the city of early 1960s Savannah, Georgia. Heat, cloying humidity and all, around those watching. While never letting on that three different locations were being utilized.

What Makes This Film Great?

Gregory Peck at the top of his game. Playing a character steadfastly loyal to the law. Living an idyllic, sedate life until fate rears its ugly head in the form of Max Cady. Who taunts, flaunts and intimidates until Peck’s Sam Bowden finds himself hamstrung by those same laws it when his family is threatened. First obliquely. Then overtly and profoundly.

Robert Mitchum towering over any and all. Completely content in his own skin. And that of his character. Holding the whole world in complete contempt as he flat out frightens many. Those foolish enough to not be impressed, he stares down and grimaces until they wise up. I’d mentioned in previous reviews how Mitchum can be scary. As his Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter and intimidating as Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past. As Max Cady, Mitchum enters an whole and entirely new arena. Arrogant. Impervious and oozing with slovenly creepiness. Creating an iconic character until Martin Scorsese tried his hand at it. And created a film that stands alone, but still comes up short.

The supporting cast of Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase, Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas all turn in memorable, exceptional work. With the lion’s share of attention given to the ladies in attendance who advance the story along believably and briskly. While Balsam and Savalas reveal some of their greatness to be realized in future films.

All meshing together in a Classic that has solidly and frighteningly withstood the test of time and still grabs attention today!

The Film’s Mystique:

The proper amounts of Peck in Mitchum in a project produced by Mr. Peck’s production company, Melville, which bought the rights to Mr. MacDonald’s novel very early on. Creating copious buzz when Robert Mitchum was Peck’s first and only choice for Max Cady. Rod Steiger’s agent lobbied hard, but was turned down on several occasions. Though Mr. Steiger did get to dance close to Cady’s character. As serial killer with a make-up kit, Christopher Gill in No Way to Treat a Lady in 1968.

Cape Fear is a superbly tense amalgam of Action. Reaction and scarily bullying while messing with one’s mind. Distinctly sloshing around in the kiddie pool of What if? Attention should be paid in regards to how Max Cady reacts when his taunts and threats are ignored or challenged. Each of Cady’s reactions are more violent and brutal than the one before. All offset by Cady’s near serene, inhuman Frankenstein smile when he has a woman right where he wants her.

Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews

Thoughts on the original Cape Fear film? Do share ’em in the comments.