Adapted from John D. McDonald’s 1957 novel, “The Executioners,” the original version of “Cape Fear” (1962) stands at the edge of a change in the way Hollywood represents sexual violence in film. The censorship of the studio days is clearly crumbling, for here is a movie whose whole premise is that a violent, psychotic criminal longs to do unspeakable things to an innocent child, ostensibly because her father thwarted him in the past but primarily because he is a monster who enjoys hurting anything that falls within his grasp. After “Cape Fear” will come the movies that show the audience every awful detail of sexual assault, but here the threat is persistent, if largely unseen, and disturbing enough to unsettle modern viewers even if it no longer shocks them. Cinephiles rightly praise the powerful performances of Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck as the two embattled leads, but female viewers are likely to notice the relentless victim status of the film’s women as much as they admire its active male combatants.
Mitchum stars as Max Cady, a newly released convict who turns up looking for revenge against Southern attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), whose testimony as a witness put Cady away for eight years. Cady launches an assault on every aspect of Bowden’s life, always staying just within the limits of the law, but Bowden is forced to take action when Cady threatens his wife (Polly Bergen) and adolescent daughter (Lori Martin) with sadistic sexual assault.
The movie really belongs to Robert Mitchum, a fact acknowledged by both director Lee J. Thompson and costar Gregory Peck, who was the driving force behind the making of the film in the first place. As he did in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), Mitchum plays the villain with hypnotically attractive menace, although Max Cady is a more brutish, more physical killer than Harry Powell. As his adversary, Peck’s Sam Bowden represents the upright family man, the pillar of the community, but he is eventually dragged down to Cady’s level by the inability of the law to protect those he loves. Cady taunts Bowden by turning the law against him, forcing Peck’s good man to become like Cady – violent and deceptive – in order to fight back.
Both Mitchum and Peck have strong, interesting characters to play, but “Cape Fear” offers no such roles for its women, who are uniformly depicted as helpless victims with no resources of their own to protect them. Cady’s unseen ex-wife, who becomes his first target after his release from prison, Barrie Chase’s barfly, and Polly Bergen’s bland homemaker all share a complete inability to do anything to stop Cady’s assaults or punish them. The scenes with Chase’s character, Diane Taylor, even suggest her complicity in her own abuse. There’s a look in her eye from the moment she first sees Cady that tells us she fears him and is drawn to him precisely because she knows what he will do. Ironically, Bowden’s young daughter seems to be the only one with enough sense to run away from Cady when she sees him, but being a child she has the least ability to fight. Her mother’s passivity is perhaps the most disturbing image of female helplessness. There is no primal maternal strength in Peggy Bowden, or even enough sense of the threat to guard her child. Her shopping excursion leaves Nancy unprotected after school, and she would rather call the police on her own husband than see him kill the man who wants to rape her little girl. The audience is not encouraged to sympathize with these women or see them as fully realized individuals, and therein lies the movie’s greatest weakness.
Look for notable performances from Telly Savalas and Martin Balsam in the supporting roles, as well as familiar character actor Will Wright. Martin Scorsese remade “Cape Fear” in 1991 with Robert De Niro in the Max Cady role, which earned De Niro an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam all have cameos in the remake, highlighting Scorsese’s admiration for the original. See Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past” (1947), “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), and “El Dorado” (1966). For more of Gregory Peck, see “The Gunfighter” (1950), “Roman Holiday” (1953), and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). Director Lee J. Thompson also helmed the Gregory Peck film, “The Guns of Navarone” (1961).
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