I was testing my self-control to see how long I could last without seeing a Robert Mitchum film. Well, I finally succumbed. But yes, this I’ll say: this is a very different Mitchum film from the ones I’ve been reviewing all this while. In Cape Fear (the original film, not the 1991 remake), Mitchum is pitted against Gregory Peck in a chilling tale of an ex-convict out to have his revenge on the man responsible for his conviction.
Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer who, eight years ago, was the prime witness in a case of criminal assault (and rape? It’s not explicitly stated). Bowden came upon the victim in a parking lot while her attacker was in the middle of mauling her; the interruption made the man go even more berserk, resulting in the woman spending a month in hospital. Bowden’s testimony sent the attacker, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) to prison for eight years. But Cady’s out now, and he’s in town. Worse still, he wants Bowden to know.
Bowden is inclined to not take Cady too seriously, but he starts getting worried when he finds Cady trailing him and his family: his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and their daughter Nancy (Lori Martin).
Bowden gets nervous and has a chat with Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), his friend and the chief of police. Dutton reminds Bowden that they have nothing on which to hold Cady: he’s served his sentence, he’s even (as per law) registered with the police after moving to this town. But Cady’s likely to be broke, so they could arrest him on a charge of vagrancy and put him by for six months.
Dutton’s men go and pick up Cady just as he’s getting ready to pick up a pretty brunette called Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase), whom he’s spotted in a bar. She’s new in town, out for a good time, and quite clearly finds Cady very attractive.
Unfortunately for Bowden, Cady can’t be arrested as a vagrant. It turns out he’s recently sold a house he’d inherited, and so has over five grand stashed away in a bank account. And he’s spent the past eight years studying the law; he knows his legal rights. The police have to let Cady go.
The next day, the Bowdens’ dog is poisoned, and though there’s no proof, Sam Bowden can guess who’s behind it. All he can do right now is to tell Peggy and Nancy about Max Cady, and to warn them.
The day after, Bowden gets an urgent summons from Dutton’s office. When Bowden arrives at the police station, he finds Cady there, with the lawyer he’s employed. This is Dave Grafton (Jack Kruschen), a slimy character who specialises in protecting ex cons. A breath of suspicion, and Grafton will have Dutton and his team in the dock for police brutality. Between them, Dutton and Bowden manage to put Grafton with his back to the wall, but one thing’s clear: without evidence, they can’t touch Max Cady.
Once they’re on their own, Dutton offers an off-the-record suggestion: Bowden should hire a private detective, Charles Sievers (Telly Savalas) to sort out this business. Bowden wants everything to be due process, but finally agrees to see what Sievers can do. Dutton promises to depute a man to tail Cady, so at least they’ll know what he’s up to. In the meantime, Cady has picked up Diane Taylor, who gets him to drive her to the flat she’s rented. Dutton’s man phones back with the news and suggests they nab Cady for `lewd vagrancy’.
By the time the police arrive, Cady has raped Diane, thrashed her within an inch of her life, and gone. Gone too, is the bright and erotic creature Diane Taylor once was: Cady’s left behind a nervous wreck, battered and broken and too scared to say a word to the police. Dutton calls Sievers and Bowden, but Diane refuses to testify against Cady. Not only is she too scared, she’s also worried about what people will say when all the gory details are published. Nobody in the small town she comes from will ever forget it.
There’s nothing they can do about it—she’s adamant—so Dutton and Bowden have to let Diane go, and she leaves town.
Soon after, Bowden finds Cady following his family once again. This time, it’s at the wharf, where the Bowdens are preparing their boat for a day’s sailing. While Bowden and Peggy go off on various errands, Nancy stays on the boat, brushing up the paint, not realising that Cady’s watching her all the while.
When Bowden returns and discovers Cady, Cady has the gall to tell him that Nancy is “gettin’ to be as juicy as your wife, ain’t she?” That makes Bowden let fly at Cady, but nothing comes of it, ultimately—except that Bowden is now very scared for Nancy.
Cady isn’t to be shaken off so easily, and turns up again one day when Peggy leaves her car in front of Nancy’s school and goes off shopping nearby until school gets over. Nancy gets in the car, watches the school empty out, and sees a lone man, big and broad, dark haired and wearing a panama hat, walking leisurely down the street… straight towards their car.
And from then on, things go careening out of control for the Bowdens. Max Cady is obviously out to get them. But he’s protected by the wily Dave Grafton and by the fact that there’s nothing the police can legally pin onto him. Bowden knows Cady’s drawing swiftly closer, and Nancy and Peggy are no longer safe. He can offer Cady money, but will Cady settle for money? He can hire goons to thrash Cady, but will that suffice?
Or he can stand by and watch as his wife and daughter are traumatised by a man who’s utterly without scruple or mercy or a shred of goodness in him.
What I liked about this film:
Robert Mitchum! Yes, of course: I adore Mitchum, but in Cape Fear it’s his acting I have to applaud, he’s so good—or should that be so ruthlessly, chillingly evil? Max Cady smiles, flirts, and has a man-about-town air about him that’s sexually attractive, but look into those hard, calculating eyes and you get a glimpse of just how much cold-blooded malevolence this man is capable of. If this was the only Mitchum film I’d ever seen, I’d hate the man.
The frames. The director’s J Lee Thompson, and he uses everyday objects—a water pipe, the headboard of a bed, a waiter’s arm, a rack of glasses—to create some memorable visuals.
What I didn’t like:
The Diane Taylor character. Call me prudish or whatever, but I just couldn’t summon up any pity for her. Anyone can see Max Cady isn’t a gentle soul: he’s very apparently predatory (She even sums it up by calling him—in a hoarse, erotic whisper—“Coarse, rustic, barbaric”). Why did this idiot of a girl go with him, then? Sex is all very well, but shouldn’t there be some instinct for self-preservation? And then, when the police and Bowden are urging her to file charges against Cady, she refuses because people back home will come to know what she’s been up to. Well, I’d have suggested circumspection in the first place. Irritating female.
There are a few holes in the plot, illogical behaviour that doesn’t make sense. For instance, when Peggy knows Nancy’s school’s about to give over and Nancy will come out to, why doesn’t she leave the store and come back? (That’s the excuse she later gives for having not been in the car when Nancy emerges from school). Doesn’t she realise just how much more urgent protecting her daughter is?
Despite that, this is a good film. Taut, with the tension building up quickly, and with one of the eeriest and most scary villains I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Little bit of trivia:
There’s a story about how, during the shooting of a fight between Bowden and Cady, Gregory Peck accidentally actually punched Mitchum. Though it must’ve hurt like hell, Mitchum continued shooting, mainly because he realised Peck hadn’t meant to hit him. The punch laid Mitchum up for a couple of days and he later remarked that he wouldn’t feel sorry for anyone dumb enough to pick a fight with Peck!