Oct. 11, 2009

Cape Fear (1962)
Grade: 70/100

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Stars: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Lori Martin

What it's about. Upright, uptight manly man Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer in an idyllic North Carolina small town. He has a predictably attractive and moral wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen) and a predictably innocent yet comely 14 year old daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). As someone frequently in the courtroom, he is buddy-buddy with local police chief Dutton (Martin Balsam).

Bowden's well planned life is upset when a forgotten enemy, Max Cady, arrives in town and begins stalking Bowden and his family. Cady (Robert Mitchum), whose speciality is sexual assault, was sent to prison by Bowden eight years ago. He spent that time carefully planning revenge, and Bowden can do little about it because Cady is cagey with the law.

Following escalating, threatening episodes familiar to anyone who has seen Fatal Attraction or its ilk, inevitably Bowden and Cady have a mano-a-mano confrontation with the sexual sanctity of Bowden's wife and daughter on the line.

Future Kojak Telly Savalas has a notable supporting role as Bowden's streetwise private detective.

How others will see it. Cape Fear was a commercial flop, and received no award nominations. It was considered in bad form at the time, particularly Cady's sexual obsession with young teenager Nancy. Time changes perspectives, and by the mid-1970s, the film became a cult favorite. Eventually there was a big studio remake in 1991, directed by the renowned Martin Scorsese, who wisely cast the daughter with a 17 year old actress.

Today's audiences are so jaded by outrageous slasher movies that the original Cape Fear seems comparatively mild. Only sheltered pre-teenagers could possibly be shaken by Mitchum's menacing performance.

How I felt about it. There is much formula in the story. For example, Bowden is well established as a thoroughly dangerous man before the big final confrontation, dispatching amoral hottie Barrie Chase, a small group of bowery toughs, and hapless deputy Page Slattery before spoiling Boward's family vacation.

Nonetheless, the direction is so taut that we have to admire his craft, even though we are seldom surprised by the plot. B-movie director Thompson received his plum assignment because the biggest hit of his career, The Guns of Navarone, was made the year before and also starred Gregory Peck.

The film makes at least four statements: Crime Doesn't Pay; The Police Can't Help You; Stand Up To Your Bully; and Bad Girls Get What's Coming To Them. Most dangerous among these is Stand Up To Your Bully. You might just get your teeth knocked out. We also note that crime pays much better when you don't telegraph your actions to your adversary first, which Cady does all too often.