Title: Cape Fear
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Writer: James R. Webb
based on John D. MacDonald’s novel THE EXECUTIONERS
Music: Bernard Hermann
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Not the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake, this is the black-and-white original version directed by J. Lee Thompson, the UK practitioner’s first Hollywood production at the heels of his whopping adventure THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), which earned him an Oscar nomination.
Under the palette of sharp monochrome, it is a four-square good vs. evil battle of wits and guts, law-abiding lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) would do anything to protect his family, wife Peggy (Bergen) and their 14-year-old daughter Nancy (Martin, an ambivalent impersonation between girl and woman), from the menacing figure Max Cady (Mitchum), an ex-con served 8 years behind the bar, now seeks revenge to Sam, who was the key witness of his conviction.
After Cady’s blatant re-surface in his hometown, a cautious Sam doesn’t waste any time to pull some strings from his friend, police chief Mark Dutton (Balsam), to obstruct Cady in every possible way, which doesn’t work out since Cady is a daredevil with enough dough to stay wherever he pleases. A chilling sidebar involving Cady and a loose woman Diane Taylor (Chase, sending up a riveting condemnation of women who are intuitively drawn to a man’s sinister allure, over-confidently overlooks all the glaring warning signs) substantiates that Cady is the absolute scourge, amoral, ferocious and beyond any redemption, although his underside is circumspectly circumvented.
Interestingly enough, the film engagingly plays up the psychosomatic distress of Sam’s family before Cady actually goes full-throttle (except for a venomous dog-poisoning misdeed), a rather incredible episode of Nancy hiding in the suddenly empty school after seeing Cady approaching to her is both eyebrow-raising and absorbing. When the law enforcement fails miserably to forestall Cady’s ultimate transgression, Sam turns to private eye Charlie Sievers (Savalas) for keeping a close eye on Cady, and tries futilely to grease the palm of him, until some ineffectual hired thugs really ruffle Cady’s feathers. A final face-off would take place in the ominous Cape Fear where Peggy and Nancy are inopportunely deployed as vulnerable decoys, but what if Cady can outguess Sam’s moves? Does he have time to save both?
Mitchum is a superlative villain, slightly idealized apropos of his omnipotence, he exudes undeniable menace and can haunt you in your worst nightmare, the interrogation scenes between him and Bergen are high-water marks of screen intimidation and capitulation (nice improvisation with the eggs!). Peck is also gung-ho is a less showboating role, a conscientious family man who is press-ganged into going off the beaten path to save the day, scarcely loses his composure until things escalating out of his clutches.
Superbly emboldened by a competent cast and its eerily perturbing score from Bernard Hermann, J. Lee Thompson’s CAPE FEAR is a top-shelf manipulation of suspense and terror, plus a cri-de-coeur to attest why a restraining order is so requisite in our society, for without it, we are practically defenseless when facing a lurking psychopath.