Cape Fear (1962)
Cape Fear (1962)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: April 12th, 1962 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: J. Lee Thompson Actors: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Martin Balsam, Jack Kruschen, Telly Savalas, Barrie Chase




n one of the most perfect of all character introductions, the sinister Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) passes a woman on the stairs of a courthouse, unflinching as she drops a book from a sizable stack, proceeding on his way without even stopping to observe her predicament. It’s an action of the same unforgettable caliber as James Cagney squashing a fruit in a dame’s face. Cady then visits the superior court, where attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, quite at home in the role of a lawyer) is in the midst of a case. A few minutes later, outside in the parking lot, Cady stops Sam, giving unsubtle threats to his family, as the recently released criminal (convicted of assaulting a girl; the word “rape” is never spoken in the film due to censorship issues) blames the counselor for a more than 8-year bid up in Baltimore.

“I think he’s starting a war of nerves with me.” Cady is up to no good, and he’s keen on letting Bowden know it. Stalking him at a bowling center that night, where Sam’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) unwind; poisoning the Bowdens’ dog; and hiring a slimy defense attorney (Jack Kruschen in a nicely despicable role) to establish a pattern of persecution and public degradation are just the beginning of Cady’s ploy to destroy his nemesis. The ex-con is also interested in preying upon a fresh female victim, though his primary concern is to significantly torment his old opponent.

Cady’s unwavering confidence and squinty glare make him even scarier. He’s one of cinema’s most frightening villains, largely because he represents a realistic antagonist. He’s not a hideous, oversized monster with teeth or superpowers; he’s a mere man, but with single-minded, malicious intentions and persistence. He’s an exceptionally believable bully, one whom audiences will likely recognize – in some form or another – from somewhere in their own personal experiences. Sam’s close relationship with Chief of Police Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) and his eventual hiring of a private detective (Telly Savalas) isn’t even much of a comfort; here, the authorities have an unfortunate way of following the letter of the law, which means giving Cady a wide berth.

“The type like that is an animal … so you gotta fight him like an animal.” Bernard Herrmann’s music notably augments the chills of this stellar, Hitchcockian adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s novel “The Executioners,” yet it’s Mitchum’s powerful performance that makes “Cape Fear” truly effective (offering up yet another striking turn like the one from 1955’s “The Night of the Hunter”). Countless other pictures would borrow the basic concept (from “Straw Dogs” to “Sleeping with the Enemy,” to “Unlawful Entry”), pitting a vulnerable, occasionally helpless protagonist against a relentless, vengeful malevolence, forcing a last resort to brute strength rather than a preferred dependance on due process, but “Cape Fear” boasts the peerless Mitchum.

Plus, the film gets all the beats right; the situations alternate between nerve-wracking and infuriating and horrifying, all while the pacing stays precise. It’s particularly potent that the story revolves around a lawyer, who remains continually at ethical odds with the extreme solutions available to him (from bribes to hiring some rough waterfront boys for intimidation to murder). When a man is pushed to the end of his wits, what is he capable of? Even without graphic imagery (though the terrorization is nonetheless severe and ahead of its time), special effects, or cutting-edge editing techniques, “Cape Fear” is a masterpiece of protracted tension and ceaseless aggravation, culminating at the aptly titled and electrifyingly atmospheric Cape Fear River, where Sam must embrace a previously unseen, dark, primal side to combat the ultimate embodiment of earthbound evil.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10