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.

29 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: Cape Fear (1962)

  1. My Dad has a DVD of both this and the Scorsese remake so I managed to watch them both in a night some time back. I thought both versions were brilliant, but the ’62 film I found really outstanding. Great review.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Tyler:

      Thanks for the compliment. Great comment and getting the conversation started!

      The original 1962 film still rules the roost!

      I’ve seen Scorsese’s take and though it stands on its own merits. Thompson’s view is more streamlined in presenting Max Cady with as little explanation as possible. Making his character even more frightening.

  2. Nice review Jack. I think the film still holds up today. They don’t come with much more suspense than this. Cape Fear, Night Of The Hunter, Touch Of Evil and The Manchurian Candidate are some films I recommend to people who think that older, B&W films are lame, slow and predictable.

    Cape Fear is one of the first major American films where the subject of rape, the threat of rape of a teenager no less, was even suggested in a film. From wikipedia “Although the word “rape” was entirely removed from the script before shooting, the film still enraged the censors, who were worried that “there was a continuous threat of sexual assault on a child”. And rightly so as Max Cady had previously spent 8 years in jail for sexual assault so the first time I saw this film I didn’t quite know haw far they were going to take it… really ramping up the suspense. Interestingly Welles’s Touch Of Evil (’58) was another film that used the suggestion of rape and even hard drug use to add to the suspense. Bergman fully explored this taboo subject inThe Virgin Spring in 1960 which had an actual rape and murder scene in it. Despite the dark subject matter it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Probably not until Midnight Cowboy (’69) did a mainstream American film handle the subject so explicitly. Consequently it was immediately slapped with an X rating. It also won an Academy Award for Best Picture. This paved the way for other big studio American films by maverick directors like Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (’71), Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (’71) and Boorman’s Deliverence (’72) broaching the subject of male rape. Ding ding ding, ding ding, ding ding, ding ding…

    Anyway… Fun Fact: For those of you who didn’t know Scorsese used Herrmann’s original score for the remake of Cape Fear(’91). They had previously worked together on Taxi Driver which was Herrmann’s last score before he died. Also Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam all had supporting roles in the remake.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, dave:

      Good catch!

      What I like about Thompson’s original is that most of the violence is implied, rather than seen. Especially when the door the camera is filming through is finally, slowly closed when Mitchum’s Max Cady finally catches up and corners Barrie Chase. You know something very bad is happening.

      ‘Touch of Evil’ is a classic in its own right. And did push the envelope when it came to implied drug use. While the taboo of homosexuality was hinted at with Dennis Weaver’s fidgety character. And a touch of lesbianism, with its butch, leather jacketed female gang member doing Quinlan’s bidding in regard to Janet Leigh’s Susan Vargas.

      ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ never did that much for me. The cast is good. The story, suspenseful, I can understand why Sinatra kept it under wraps after JFK was assassinated. Though the scene that sticks out in my mind is the guy knowing too much being shot through the grocery bag he’s holding and bleeding pink milk.

      The film is also notable for making cliche the need for a telescopic scoped rifle for a shot well within iron sight range. Then filming the target though the cross hairs. Which became a staple of many cop shows and films of the late
      1960s to today.

      1. Hmmm. Interesting. Didn’t catch that about Dennis Weaver’s character. I will be on the lookout for that next time. Thank god Orson left those notes for restoring the film.The studio putting credits over one of the greatest shots in movie history…. jeez. Like screenwriter William Goldman one said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows nothing.”

        Some day Jack I’ll give my take on The Manchurian Candidate and why I like it so much. I was lucky enough to see it when it was rereleased to theaters back in ’88. Sinatra was real proud of the fact that it was the first major American movie to use the “kung fu” style of fighting for a scene. I particularly loved the surreal tea party in the garden scene. Very Bunuel like wouldn’t you say? And Landsbury… what a oedipal vision of evil she was. “Murder she wrote” indeed!

        1. jackdeth72

          Hi again, dave:

          I think Angela Lansbury had a ball playing the evil Red Queen. Such a change from the characters she’d delivered before! One with great depth and levels of arrogance and evil. Kind of glad and kind of not, that she broke away from Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin and never looked back.

          The Tea Part scene is memorable for its dreamlike creepiness and for introducing Khigh Dheigh as Dr. Ken Lo. Who would gather a much larger following as he portrayed Steve McGarrett’s nemesis, Wo Fat in the original ‘Hawaii Five-O’.

          1. Oh man I used to love watching Hawaii Five-O. Been a while. LOL. All-time top 10 TV theme song for me. Hell I loved that whole intro what with the majesty of Jack Lord’s hair as he whips around to look at the camera with his steely gaze. I think ZAZ’s Police Squad took the siren/lights on the police car thing from this.

      2. “What I like about Thompson’s original is that most of the violence is implied, rather than seen.” That’s a lost art these days it seems. I have no problem with a dark thriller as long as it’s not gory or with excessive violence, that’s why I like ‘The Road to Perdition’ as obviously it’s got violent content but most of it is implied, yet the impact is just as strong if not stronger. I have yet to see this film (I know, can you believe it?) but I have a feeling I will really appreciate it.

        1. jackdeth72

          Hi, Ruth!

          I’m glad you dropped by with such a great comment.

          Implied violence is much more subtle and sometimes elegant in the hands of a master. Reliant upon the brain and imagination, rather than the eyes.

          Excellent point in regards to ‘The Road to Perdition’. The big shoot-out/ambush between Tom Hanks and Paul Newman with his protectors is a classic example. You hear Hank’s Tommy Gun and see bad guys spasm and dust fly from multiple hits, but not the hits themselves.

          I recommend that you have your Hubby or a Teddy Bear close by when you watch ‘Cape Fear’. A companion impervious to being crushed by fright. 😉

    1. jackdeth72

      Thanks much, Terrence:

      Set your DVR for midnight on Friday the 13th. It’ll be on Turner Classic Movies.

      If you have neither a DVR, cable or satellite. Give Netflix a try.

      It was hard to not give away too many details, but ‘Cape Fear’ is definitely worth the effort of seeking out and enjoying.

  3. Ted S.

    I really like the remake but somehow never got a chance to see the original, gotta give it a rent soon.

    Nice review as always Jack!

    1. jackdeth72

      Greetings, Ted!

      Thanks go much.

      Scorsese’s re-make has a great cast.Though I wasn’t that surprised that De Niro was ripped and seriously muscled up for his role as Cady. Taking on Nick Nolte. One of the last true Tough Guys at the time would require it.

      Thompson’s original has an almost David & Goliath ambiance about it between Peck and Mitchum. Which makes the payoff more worthwhile.

    2. No need to rent it Ted, I’ve got that at home. I’ll lend it to you the next time I see you, along w/ the Guns of Navarone Blu-ray.

  4. sanclementejedi

    First Night of the Hunter and now Cape Fear !!! both excellent films. If they were both on at the same time I don’t know how I would choose which one to watch. I love the photos you selected for your post.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome back, jedi:

      A week ago tonight, Turner Classic Movies played ‘Cape Fear’ at 8pm. Then ‘The Night of the Hunter; at midnight. An evening of superb cinema!

      I still prefer ‘Cape Fear’ in regards to Mitchum’s ability to terrify and strike fear. Since the camera lingers on him before he springs into action. Where in ‘The Night of the Hunter’ the ability to strike fear is far more subtle and implied.

      It’s been a gas being able to wax poetic about two classics thrillers. I’ll be rounding out my Michum triple play sometime mid-month right here with ‘Out of the Past’.

      The credit for the photos and lobby card all go to Ruth. Who has a much better eye than I do.

      1. sanclementejedi

        Jack in that case I take back all my praise 😉

        I wish I had caught that Night of the Hunter on TCM, I have been thinking of grabbing that used on amazon.

        1. jackdeth72

          Hi again, jedi:

          Amazon is a decent shot.

          You can also try oldies.com. They’ve a great selection and their prices are very good.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Dave:

      Mitchum caught lightning in a bottle with these two films! Very hard to choose which is better. More like facets of the same diamond. Rounded out
      with ‘Out of the Past’. Which is in the hopper and coming soon.

  5. Only seen the remake. I’m thinking maybe I should have a Cape Fear/Night of the Hunter double bill sometime. Both sound like the kind of classics I could love.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Pete:

      Thanks for taking the time to drop by and opine!

      Scorsese’s ‘Cape Fear’ works well and stands on its own merits. Though it tries to obliquely psychoanalyze what Cady does and why. Where the original presents Cady as Cady. With as few explanations as possible.

      A double bill of ‘Cape Fear’ and ‘The Night of the Hunter’ would be an excellent night of Mitchum at his best!

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Scott!

      It’s always fun when you drop by.

      I believe you should remedy this obvious error as quickly as possible. 😉

  6. Just finished watching this on Sky Classics and did a Google search for a blog. It’s great to a forum to talk about old, great movies.
    What makes Robert Mitchum’s performance so chilling is that his dangerous nature is marked by an everyman persona .Robert De Niro in the remake was, to me, too much of a cliched homicidal maniac.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Artrg!

      My apologies for this late response.

      The magic, though of the creepy variety is the lack of any explanation as to why Mitchum’s Max Cady does what he does. He’s introduced right off the bat and captures attention, but is a complete cypher. Revealing himself and his intentions drop by drop. Where De Niro is defined by muscles, tattoos and psychotic anger.

      Thanks so much for finding FlixChatter, dropping by and commenting. I hope to see more of them in the future!

  7. Just watched this on TV and did a Google search. Great to have a forum to talk about such old, classic movies!
    What was so great yet chilling about Robert Mitchum’s performance was how the extent of his violent nature unfurled slowly behind the everyman persona.
    De Niro’s a great actor, but he was too clichéd a homicidal maniac in the remake for my taste. I like the old-style suspense.

    1. jackdeth72

      Greetings, rachel:

      Welcome to FlixChatter!

      Classic films and B&W are my comfort zones and Robert Mitchum is still one of the great masters of those arenas. Able to play any character well and believably while being serenely comfortable in his own skin. An attribute few actors have today.

      Scorsese and De Niro played way too much with what made Max Cady tick. Visually and verbally. Which detracted from the character and his overall impact on the story.

      If my post piqued your curiosity or made you smile. I’ve done my job well.
      Feel free to drop by more often!

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