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USA 1962
Directed by
J. Lee Thomson
105 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Cape Fear (1962)

Robert Mitchum plays Max Cady, an ex-con who arrives in small-town in Georgia to exact his revenge on Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) whose eye-witness evidence got him an eight-year prison sentence for a vicious attack on a woman. Cady toys with Sam who becomes increasingly rattled as the pathology of his tormentor’s mind becomes increasingly apparent. As the cunning Cady manages to twist the legal system to his own purpose, Sam decides that he has no recourse but to dispose of Cady and lures him into a trap. So Sam pretends to leave his wife and teenage daughter at a houseboat on Cape Fear.

The bulk of J. Lee Thompson’s film is a taut thriller that builds steadily to a climax that the director fumbles badly. Bernard Herrmann is fundamental in building the tension and Robert Mitchum, in a role that recalls his Harry Powell in The Night Of The Hunter (1955), is compelling as the bitterly twisted Max Cady, obsessed with revenging himself on the man who effectively put him away. Opposite him, Peck is in his element as the small town lawyer and devoted family, a role he played most famously as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird which was released the same year.

The film is I suspect, somewhat constrained by Production Code restrictions which limit the explicitness of Cady’s actions leaving us to imagine their brutality but it could be argued that this is also part of the film’s strength (you can test the difference by watching Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake. It is the film’s ending that is its undoing however as it requires us to believe that a panty-waist lawyer like Sam Bowden could best a thug like Cady in a flat-out physical confrontation (a problem that has beset many family-under-seige films that have since followed), Thompson handling the big showdown in an at-best perfunctory manner, even having recourse to sped-up film to simulate excitement.




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