Hidden Gem: ‘Cape Fear’ (1962)

By Syd Slobodnik

Most thoughtful filmgoers would agree there should be a rule: There should simply never be a remake of a film as exceptionally well-made as the first time. This rule even applies to Steven Spielberg’s planned remake of the Oscar-winning “West Side Story” that guarantees that none of the lead stars will have their singing voices dubbed, as was done in the original.

There are simply too many examples that prove this point about flawed remakes, no matter who was responsible for rethinking the original film. Possibly one of the best examples this remake rule applies to this week’s gem, J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 chilling black and white, psychological thriller “Cape Fear.” It featured a clash of wills between good guy Gregory Peck and the sadistic Robert Mitchum. Furthermore, Thompson’s film is a prime example of cinematic “less is more.”

By contrast, despite having a fabulous A-list cast with Robert DeNiro and Nick Nolte, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake was done in all the wrong ways.  This updated version removed all the subtle visual delicacy of the original and poured on the excess of graphic violence and psychotic perverse characterizations.

Thompson’s film was based on a popular pulp novel by John D. MacDonald. The film concerns an honest, dedicated Georgia attorney, Sam Bowden (Peck), who years before offered testimony in a rape trial that helped convict Max Cady (Mitchum) to a lengthy prison sentence. As the film begins, Cady has just been released after serving an eight-year term and has come to Bowden’s hometown to get revenge. 

A few of director Thompson’s more subtle qualities are the film’s basic black and white noir visual style, lighting, shadows, and how Mitchum portrayed Cady.  With minimal verbal comments, odd facial expressions, tough-guy swagger, a floppy Panama hat, and a long cigar, Cady is a constant, ominous presence.

When Cady shows up at the local bowling alley confronting Sam, his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin), Sam becomes immediately defensive and protective. He seeks out help from the local police chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), and shortly, the police pick up Cady from a bar, charging him with vagrancy. Within days Cady’s lawyer appears in town and threatens local officials that his client has received unfair harassment and interrogation.  Everyone should back off from this ex-con who’s trying to reestablish his ways in society as a lawful citizen. Cady allows his lawyer to do the talking while he sits at stares at Bowden, with a threat that vows revenge.

Within days Bowden hires a private detective, Charles Sievers (Telly Savalas), to protect his family and follow Cady. Sievers witnesses Cady picking up a young woman at a bar, and much later, Cady assaults the woman. Bowden now has concrete proof of Cady’s threats and violence, if only the woman will testify.

Thompson effectively builds tension and suspense in several key scenes by manipulating light and shadows, an intense film score by Bernard Herrmann, and his actors’ deliveries. In one key sequence, the 14-year-old Nancy is waiting in her mom’s car outside her school when Cady appears on the sidewalk and frightens Nancy as she runs back into the school, hiding in the basement near the utility room and lockers. The slowly moving Cady appears to trap her into a corner.

Bowden tries several other illegal methods of getting rid of the stalking menace, including offering him $20,000 to leave the state and hiring three thugs to beat Cady, before the film reaches a stunning climactic showdown filmed on a houseboat near Cape Fear, North Carolina. Cady first attacks Peggy and appears to rape her, but his main target is the innocent Nancy. But Bowden takes the law into his own hands to protect his family.

Peck’s Sam Bowden is the prime example of a good, honest family man like Peck played so well the same year in his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And by direct contrast, Mitchum’s Cady is the sociopathic opposite, a man ever so creepy hatred with subtle gestures and demeanor. “Cape Fear” won no significant awards in 1962 but maintained a strong cult following, which I guess motivated Scorsese to remake it three decades later. He should have just left well enough alone.