Cape Fear (1962)

Watching J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller “Cape Fear”, I kept trying to understand what it was that was lacking; there were exceptional performances throughout (in particular from Robert Mitchum as the deranged Max Cady), the score was phenomenal, there was some good moments of understandably iconic suspense, so I was confused as to why I was so damn bored. I think its sort of like if someone decided to make a cake, sourced some of the finest chocolate and richest butter but then forgotten the eggs to bind it all together. Unfortunately, this to me just wasn’t very entertaining and for stretches painfully slow, which I wasn’t expecting from such a lauded and widely referenced thriller.

The story itself makes for some real thrills, which are capitalised upon in the 1991 remake starring Robert De Niro and delivers that rare thing where the remake is actually stronger than the original. The story follows Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) a lawyer in Southeast Georgia who had testified against degenerate Max Cady for sexually assaulting a woman and put him in prison some eight years prior. Now Cady is back and vowing revenge, discreetly stalking Bowden, his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and their daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) and manipulating the police system so that Bowden has no course of action against him. The progression of intimidation eventuates with Bowden fleeing with his family as he desperately tries to outwit Cady and protect his wife and daughter from a crazed psychopath who cannot be reasoned with and whose sole purpose is their pain.

The film actually starts out pretty well; the initial interactions between Cady and Bowden are tense and foreboding and there is a pervasive sense of anxiety. Mitchum as Cady is just unbelievable; there’s something animalistic and perverse in his mannerisms, despicable yet charming in the way psychopaths often are. Cady is a man in complete control, with a sadistic grin he toys with Bowden and taunts him for his own amusement. He has ample opportunity to kill Bowden and would have no remorse for doing so, he only keeps him alive to torture him and bit by bit make him feel as though he’s losing everything he loves. Strangely enough, Bowden to me is the least interesting character in the whole film; Bergen and Martin as Bowden’s wife and daughter are headstrong and dynamic depictions of women in a terrifying situation, while Peck by comparison is incredibly two dimensional and wooden.

The biggest issue I had with the film was its pacing; the sparse moments of admittedly well executed terror just aren’t enough to support the achingly long stretches in between. I understand the role that suspense plays in thrillers but it sure does wear thin in this and the intended build-up instead becomes extended periods of pretty boring cinema. Another thing is that the threat that Cady poses should have been dealt with in five minutes; Cady is stalking and threatening Bowden and his family, there’s no way the police would allow him to do this in any sane world. Because of that, I became fairly frustrated with Bowden and his police associates for being incompetent. Bowden decided that it was a good idea to take his family to an isolated swamp where nobody can come to their aid, with a brilliant killer on their case with unlimited resources at his disposal and where a dumped body would never be found. This sort of stuff really irritates me; it would have been a lot easier to sympathise with Bowden if he wasn’t such an idiot.

There’s some good stuff in here; “Cape Fear” is worth seeing for the music, Robert Mitchum as Cady and a few key scenes but I won’t be seeing it again in a hurry. And disappointingly, contrary to my expectation based on the Simpsons episode of the same name, Max Cady didn’t step on a single rake.

By Jock Lehman

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