Before I begin this week’s retro review, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the sad passing of film critic Roger Ebert. Like so many of my fellow bloggers who discuss movies on a regular basis, I felt Ebert was a tremendous inspiration. His unyielding passion about film that came through in his writing will be sorely missed. Robert Mitchum, the co-star of the film discussed in this blog, was Roger Ebert’s favorite actor.
How far would normally law abiding citizens go to protect the people they love? That is the question at the heart of the 1962 film “Cape Fear.” Directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of the Navarone) and written for the screen by James R. Webb (The Big Country), the 105 minute thriller was adapted from prolific author John D. McDonald’s 1957 novel “The Executioners.” The name was changed to “Cape Fear” for the movie because actor Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird), who both produced and starred in the film, didn’t like the title of McDonald’s novel. Peck felt that films named after actual places usually resulted in box office success, so he settled on the name after spotting a town named Cape Fear in North Carolina while looking at a map of the United States.
Robert Mitchum (The Night of the Hunter) gives a brilliant performance as convicted sex offender Max Cady, who has recently been released back out into society after serving an eight year prison sentence. Cady is a brutish, menacing individual, who exudes both contempt and swagger; his single minded purpose in life has been reduced to seeking his revenge against lawyer Sam Bowden, portrayed by Peck. The reason being that Bowden witnessed Cady attempting to rape a young woman in a car, and it was his intervention and testimony at trail which got Cady convicted. (As an aside: the role of Max Cady was first offered to actor Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen).
Mitchum’s character arrives in the town in which Bowden lives, a man, who Cady always refers to as counselor. He thereafter proceeds to go about making life very uncomfortable for Bowden and his family. The actions Cady takes against Bowden are at first not overt and flashy; in fact he always manages to stay within the thinly veiled definition of what is legally allowed. Cady knows how to do that because he spent time during his incarceration learning the law, so he could use it as a weapon against Bowden. At first Cady just appears wherever Bowden happens to be, like outside the courthouse while he is walking to his car or at the bowling alley when he is spending time with his family.
Bowden tries to get rid of Cady by appealing to his friend, Mark Dutton, who happens to be the chief of police. The role of Dutton is acted by Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men). The Chief agrees to help Bowden, but every attempt by the police to strong arm Cady winds up backfiring. Unfortunately for Bowden, that line of attack is a dead end and it reaches a point where there is nothing else that Dutton can do based upon the actions that Cady has taken. As he tells Bowden, he can’t arrest someone before a crime has been committed. In an attempt to help his friend, the chief recommends that Bowden hire a private detective to trail Cady. Bowden is not pleased, but decides to heed his advice and hires Charles Sievers played by Telly Savalas. His role in Cape Fear came over a decade before he began portraying the lollipop loving detective Kojack, on the hit television show of the same name, which ran from 1973 through 1978 on CBS.
Sievers trails Cady and discovers that he has savagely beaten Diane (Barrie Chase), a woman who he picked up in a bar. That seems, at first, to be a one way ticket which will send Cady back to jail and solve Bowden’s problem. Diane, however, fearing for her life, refuses to testify against Cady. Bowden knows there is no turning back at this point, and he becomes a man who is primed to do what he must in order to protect his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). Cady’s intentions are to have his way sexually with both women, especially the daughter, as a means of inflicting scarring psychological pain on Bowden. Peck’s character, a model citizen in his community, who wants to operate within the framework of the justice system, but is getting nowhere fast, can’t allow Cady to carry out his sadistic plans, no matter what the cost.
The state of mind that Peck’s character succumbs to is exactly what Cady wanted all along. He wanted, through his actions, to force Bowden into abandoning his principles and behaving on his level. Cady is trying to get Bowden to cross criminal boundaries in order to destroy the man, an individual who has put such faith in the legal system. He wants to take from Bowden his freedom, the same freedom, which Cady feels, in his deluded way of thinking, Bowden took from him all those years earlier.
Does Cady succeed in implementing his heinous plans? Will Bowden commit murder as a means to an end in order to protect his wife and child? For those of you who already have watched this classic gem, you know the answers, and for those of you who haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you. I will say, however, that the film succeeds in creating palpable tension between Mitchum’s and Peck’s characters throughout its runtime; adding to this aura of tension is the music of composer Bernard Hermann (Taxi Driver), so there is never a lull during the viewing.
In 1991, Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) paid homage to the original and remade “Cape Fear.” The box office hit starred two time Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II) in the Cady role, a part which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The film also co-starred Golden Globe winner Nick Nolte (48 Hours) in the Bowden role, two time Academy Award winner Jessica Lange (Tootsie) as the wife, and Juliette Lewis (From Dusk Till Dawn) as the Bowden’s daughter; Lewis was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. In addition, Martin Balsam, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck all have cameos in the movie. Both the original and the re-make are excellent films on their own merits, and seeing one should not preclude movie lovers from seeing the other, as both are well worth the time it takes to watch them.