Gregory Peck stars in “Cape Fear” though only when the credits roll. The real star without a shadow of a doubt is Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, the ex-convict who is now seeking revenge against Peck’s Sam Bowden — the lawyer that helped put him away. Mitchum, who also starred in the unprecedented “The Night of the Hunter” as a villainous preacher, seems born to play the bad guy. The scenes where he reservedly watches Bowden’s family at a distance all too close for comfort are disturbing despite us not actually witnessing any brutality from the man himself. The presence of the villain elevates J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear” above the usual trappings of the revenge thriller.
The story is simple enough to be appreciated by any. Max Cady has been incarcerated for eight years when the film starts and he has just been released. The film doesn’t bother us with a contrived introduction to the events and it is immediately clear that Cady, whoever he is, is just not “right”. Gregory Peck plays the lawyer Sam Bowden though he plays it straight. The heroes are clearly defined and with this I have no issue because Thompson compensates for this surface simplicity with a tried and tested story of revenge.
Not just plain old revenge though. Cady himself explains to Bowden later that he is more a fan of the “death by a thousand cuts” method. With this in mind, Cady is staying on the edges of Peck’s field of view. He often appears when Bowden leaves and he quietly watches his family, unprotected. Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and his young daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) are the fruit that Bowden struggles to protect as he dashes about trying to save them from the convict. The scenes where Bowden is discussing what to do with the police are permeated by a constant fear that in order to try and keep his family safe, he has had to leave them alone.
Lighting is used to create suspense in the way that only black and white films can. In the final sequence Mitchum peers out through the slit between two shadows in a way aptly reminiscent of a bloodthirsty predator in the wild. The dread and tension that is reliably created whenever Mitchum is present is certainly the strength of “Cape Fear”, and Thompson understands how to use his aesthetic to amplify this.
The way in which Cady approaches effectively torturing Bowden for his “crime” is brought to a spectacular crescendo in the finale. At points Bowden is nearly driven to murder Cady with the intention to protect his family but having been clouded by rage to the extent that he doesn’t immediately see that it would destroy the family. Which is exactly what the ever present stalker wants. Their is a certain dynamic created as we wish for Bowden to cling onto his senses long enough to triumph over his enemy, though we doubt whether he will eventually manage this. The threat of tragedy hangs over the story and I found it hard to tell whether the ending would be bitter-sweet, involving the death of Cady and the ironic incarceration of Bowden.
I did root for the clear protagonists but not because of Bowden. It is the vulnerability of Nancy and Peggy that is really effectively portrayed, and I valued Bowden as the strong patriarch of the family rather than as an intricate character.
“Cape Fear” is easy to appreciate as a suspenseful tale of revenge at the hands of an incredibly intelligent and fearsome foe. Odd that Mitchum can portray such a terrifying character without us seeing his violent tendencies. A scene where Mitchum approaches the temporarily abandoned Nancy is terrifying because we are left to our imagination as to what he will do if he catches her. Whatever it is though, we know it will be awful.