Cape Fear: adapted by James R. Webb from the novel The Executioners by John D. McDonald; directed by J. Lee Thompson; starring Greogry Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Chief Dutton), and Telly Savalas (Sievers) (1962): This 1962 thriller misses greatness by the gap between the competent direction of J. Lee Thompson and whatever a master like Alfred Hitchcock might have added to the mix. Cape Fear is well worth watching, but one can dream.
The title refers to a river in North Carolina where our protagonist (Gregory Peck) and his family have a cabin and a houseboat. And that’s where the movie will climax, after Peck, as prosecuting attorney Sam Bowden, runs through every other gambit he can think of to get ex-convict Robert Mitchum, as Max Cady, to leave him and his family alone. Peck’s testimony helped put Cady away years ago for a sexual assault and battery case. Now, Cady wants vengeance.
A strong supporting cast, led by Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas, helps keep things interesting. But it’s Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of the obsessed and monstrous Cady that makes the movie sing. Here as in the earlier The Night of the Hunter, Mitchum creates a classic movie villain. And he’s utterly believeable even in some of the more overheated moments. Slow-moving, almost stately, Mitchum’s a full-sized creep-out. He underplays Cady throughout, increasing the menace by decreasing the potential for melodramatic acting excess.
Peck, who produced the film, does that whole Gregory Peck thing in which he’s a pillar of decency. A better director might have tightened up some of Peck’s reactions to things in a few scenes — at times Bowden seems a bit slow to react. And a couple of the scenes in which Bowden’s or daughter get isolated with Cady around creak and groan with the weight of implausibility. They’re saved by the fact that we accept that people whose lives have hitherto been undisturbed by the threat of violence may indeed not take a threat seriously for awhile, regardless of evidence.
The movie simmers and simmers before boiling over in its shadowy, desperate climax. There are other fine setpieces prior to the end (which makes me think of the then-nascent Viet Nam War), especially Cady’s pursuit of Bowden’s daughter through her school. Cape Fear frames the whole thing as a battle of wits, one in which Cady is surprisingly hypercompetent. He may be a beast, as we’re told again and again, but he’s a smart one. Recommended.
Cape Fear: adapted by Wesley Strick from the screenplay by James R. Webb that adapted the novel The Executioners by John D. McDonald; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Dannielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Robert Mitchum (Lieutenant Elgart) and Gregory Peck (Lee Heller) (1991): Somewhere in some alternate universe, there’s a remake of Cape Fear directed by Steven Spielberg that stars Harrison Ford as upright attorney Sam Bowden and Bill Murray as obsessive ex-con Max Cady. I’d love to see that movie.
This movie, director Scorsese’s first real thriller, isn’t quite so interesting. Where the original had Robert Mitchum underplaying as the menacing Cady, this one has Robert De Niro in full-blown cuckoo-banana mode. And eventually Scorsese and the writing join De Niro.
It’s still an enjoyable movie. There are some genuine scares and thrills, especially in the first 75 minutes. But then the movie cooks up a lengthy set-piece in the Bowden house that acts as a false climax before taking us to the Cape Fear River, as the original did, for the final showdown. The false climax is excruciating, though not in a good way, and increasingly witless.
By the time a Hitchcock homage rolls around and Nolte starts slipping and sliding in a pool of blood, the thrills have been replaced by unintentional comedy. Five minutes later comes a revelation that caused the entire theatre I saw Cape Fear in when it came out to erupt into jeering laughter. And it is a ridiculous moment.
Scorsese doesn’t seem to be invested one whit in making a believeably overwrought thriller, but it’s De Niro who’s the biggest saboteur of verisimilitude. He’s a superhuman blabbermouth. Unlike Mitchum’s mostly soft-spoken Cady, De Niro never shuts up, and a lot of his talk is pseudointellectual babble about philosophy and the Bible and great American writers.
Admittedly, it’s not so much that he’s an expert on Henry Miller or Thomas Wolfe that staggers the imagination — it’s that Bowden’s 15-year-old daughter has been assigned Thomas Wolfe’s gargantuan Look Homeward, Angel for her summer-school English class. Really? No wonder she’s having problems in school. What’s the next text assigned, James Joyce’s Ulysses?
Because the entire movie exists within a frame narrative, one could argue that the most ridiculous aspects of the movie are embellishments of the narrator. Even then, the movie’s sudden loss of conviction is damning.
It’s fun to see Scorsese try and fail to make a conventional thriller, however, and the acting by Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, and Joe Don Baker is fine, though Nolte does seem miscast as Bowden. Indeed, Nolte’s acting skill-set really suggests that he should have played Max Cady. That would have been really interesting. Still, by the time De Niro starts speaking in tongues, you really will wish he’d just shut up. Possibly because he sounds an awful lot like Porky Pig. Lightly recommended.