CAPE FEAR (1962)
Rumble in the jungle.
Convicted rapist Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) has just been released from prison after doing eight years hard time, and he’s out to deliver payback to attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the man whose testimony put him in the hole. But it’s not just Sam he’s after; Cady also has unhealthy designs on Sam’s sexy wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and 14-year-old daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). As the title credits unfold to the portentous strains of Bernard Herrmann’s music, Cady struts into the Savannah, Georgia courtroom where Bowden is trying a case. The look on his face spells bad intentions writ large. As Sam gets into his car afterward, Cady suddenly materializes and re-introduces himself. “Hello, counselor. Remember me? Baltimore. Eight years, four years and 13 days ago.” Just to let him know he’s back. Just to start f**king with him a little.
Cady’s psychological war of attrition has begun. The next salvo is delivered at a bowling alley, where Cady sips a cold one while watching the Bowdens play. He makes sure that Sam knows he’s there, and by his attitude alone conveys an unspoken yet tangible threat to the family. Bowden subsequently puts in a concerned call to Sheriff Dutton (Martin Balsam), who also happens to be his best friend. Cady is picked up at a waterfront bar (where he’s working his sleazy mojo on the local talent), but when Dutton threatens him with vagrancy, Cady produces a bank statement attesting to his solvency.
Cady has a fatal attraction for the opposite sex.
The ex-con soon raises the ante, feeding Nancy’s dog a fatal dose of strychnine and threatening legal action over a pattern of police harassment. Cady’s game is now clearly apparent, and Bowden is just as clearly helpless. He can’t have Cady arrested for something he hasn’t yet done, even though Bowden knows damn well it’s going to happen sooner or later. While he chews on that disquieting bone, Cady meanwhile brutally assaults the sluttish pickup he’s been sleeping with since he hit town. Nothing personal, it’s meant as a warning to Bowden of what’s in store for his wife and daughter. Cady increasingly targets the latter, visually undressing her at the marina where the Bowdens keep their boat, and sending her into terrified hysterics when he shows up at her school.
Following a failed, desperate attempt to buy Cady off, Bowden finally crosses the legal line, hiring some local muscle to teach Cady a lesson. Only they’re not tough enough, and after Cady has put them in the hospital, the deadly game of cat and mouse enters its final phase: Bowden uses his family as bait at a remote cabin on the Cape Fear River in hopes of luring Cady into the open so he can kill him. Things don’t turn out quite like Sam plans, however, as Cady manages to get the upper hand and force each member of the Bowden clan to confront the unthinkable.
Confronting the unspeakable.
Nearly 50 years after its release, Cape Fear has lost none of its visceral impact. Rarely has a mainstream Hollywood movie so openly confronted the prospect of child rape. Even though the words “assault” and “attack” are substituted throughout, the filmmakers leave no doubts concerning Cady’s depraved intentions. Thanks to the dark brilliance of director J. Lee Thompson and screenwriter James R. Webb, the film is nearly as tough and nasty as the John D. MacDonald thriller it’s based on.
Thompson was fresh from his triumphant direction of The Guns of Navarone (1961) when Peck’s production company approached him to helm Cape Fear. His decision to make it in black and white added immeasurably to its atmosphere of moral instability and primal fear. His subtle handling of the film’s violence, suggesting more than he shows, makes it much more palpable and disturbing. And his practice of letting the audience know what’s about to happen before the characters do effectively contributes to the escalating tension.
The final confrontation reaches an almost unbearable pitch as Cady corners his young victim in a swampland cabin while her parents drift helplessly downstream in their rented houseboat. It’s as dark and despairing a moment as the cinema has given us.
Cady channels his inner beatnik.
Robert Mitchum rarely played out and out villains, but when he did, the results were spectacular. No one who has seen Night of the Hunter (1955) is likely to forget his murderous preacher with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles. The actor brought equal intensity to his role as Max Cady, whose heavy-lidded, baleful stare hints at barely repressed psychotic undercurrents. Mitchum’s powerful physique, on frequent display throughout the film, holds the promise of unstoppable violence. He imbues Cady with a reptilian quality that evokes nothing so much as a ravenous crocodile as he pursues the Bowden family through Georgia swampland in the film’s final minutes.
The revelation of Mitchum’s performance, however, is its redneck hipster quality. Cady is without doubt one of the most visceral predators ever burned onto celluloid. But he’s also an undeniably cool cat, a sociopathic Jack Kerouac, if you will. Cady’s sartorial style — chinos, sport shirt, windbreaker and, most distinctively, a sporty Panama hat tilted back at a cocksure angle — immediately sets him apart from the conservative citizenry of the small Southern town where the story unfolds. Cady doesn’t walk, he saunters. His body language is arrogant and knowing, and his face is set in a perpetual smirk, as if he’s enjoying a secret joke at the expense of all the rubes around him. He’s also a fount of sardonic humor, delivered in streetwise jargon that nicely counterbalances the film’s visual and thematic darkness. His first words in the movie, addressed to an elderly black janitor, are: “Hey, daddy, where does Sam Bowden hang out?” Although Cady uses the word “daddy” as a casual form of an address to an older man, the term also harbors racial and sexual implications that possibly relate to his life in prison. The viewer has already pegged Cady as an unregenerate sleazeball, so anything’s possible.
But what really makes Cady cool is how easily he dominates people and situations. When he’s arrested in a cocktail bar on the orders of Chief Dutton, he doesn't meekly submit, but first ambles over to the sexy girl he’s been eyeballing, tosses a contemptuous glance at her male companion, and says, “I’m going to give you just one hour to get rid of your friend.” “Are you trying to pick me up?” she asks. He relies with a knowing leer and emphatic “Yes,” pushes the brim of his hat down Sinatra style and strolls out like the arrogant badass he is.
Bowden faces his worst nightmare.
It’s a testament to Peck’s physical charisma and acting talent that he holds his own against Mitchum’s malefic magnificence. Peck projects the decency and integrity that were part and parcel of his onscreen persona, but adds some dark shadings to his character. Bowden is a family man and upstanding citizen, but he isn’t above using his police connections to have Cady rousted. He willingly jeopardizes his career when he pays to have Cady beaten up. And his plan to trap Cady not only puts his family directly in harm’s way, but amounts to little more than premeditated murder, no matter how justified.
Cady makes short work of his attackers.
• Thompson adds dramatic weight to the scene in which Cady fends off the men hired to work him over by filming at night and in the isolation beneath a waterfront pier. As the surf relentlessly pounds the shoreline, Cady unleashes his brute force upon his would-be attackers, prevailing even after being slammed in the midriff with a length of bicycle chain.
• When Cady traps Peggy Bowden aboard the houseboat, he slowly backs her against a counter, then suddenly plucks a raw egg from a dish and crushes it in his fist, sending yolk flying everywhere. (Thompson improvised the startling visual metaphor on set.) As Mrs. Bowden tries to recover from her shock, Cady obscenely smears the yolk onto her chest, adding even more disturbing overtones to their encounter.
Cady introduces Peggy Bowden to the pleasures of egg yolk.
Max Cady [undergoing a strip search at the police station]: “Here, you better check that shirt. I got a coupla jolts of horse stashed under the collar.”
Diane Taylor [the tart Cady sleeps with and later assaults]: “Max Cady, what I like about you is...you’re rock bottom. I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.”
Max Cady: “Hey, buster, you got some salted peanuts — salted in the shell?”
Bartender: “Not in the shell.”
Max Cady: “Okay, forgit it. I see I’m gonna have to educate this town.”
Max Cady: “You just put the law in my hands, and I’m gonna break your heart with it....I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t neva gonna forget! They ain’t neva gonna forget it, and neither will you, counselor!”
Robert Mitchum [in a telegraph to Peck and Thompson after initially turning down the role]: “I’ve had your bourbon. I’m drunk. I’ll do it.”
Little girl lost.
The End Titles
Director: J. Lee Thompson; screenplay: James R. Webb; producer: Sy Bartlett; music: Bernard Herrmann; cinematography: Sam Leavitt; editing: George Tomasini
Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden); Robert Mitchum (Max Cady); Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden); Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden); Martin Balsam (Police Chief Mark Dutton); Jack Kruschen (Dave Grafton); Telly Savalas (Charlie Sievers); Barrie Chase (Diane Taylor); Paul Comi (George Garner); John McKee (Officer Marconi); Page Slattery (Deputy Kersek); Ward Ramsey (Officer Brown); Edward Platt (judge); Will Wright (Dr. Pearsall); Joan Staley (waitress)