Seeing Cape Fear again, I was struck by the masterful use of suspense that pervades through the film. The uneasy tension between Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady, a psychopathic criminal, and Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden, the lawyer who sent him to jail, is so real it becomes uneasy to be in the presence of these characters. Without the use of overly-stylized violence that plagued Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of this film, director J. Lee Thompson uses almost purely psychological tension to create one of the most memorable films of its genre.
The plot finds attorney Sam Bowden (Peck) encountering Max Cady (Robert Mitchum, in perhaps his finest performance), newly released from a jail sentence that Bowden had been responsible for. Slowly, Bowden finds himself, as well as his wife (Bergen) and daughter, in increasing danger of Cady’s intentions for revenge.
The rest of the story unfolds in such a way that it is never clear just how or when Cady will strike next. The suspense element of this film is much darker than it would be in a film by, say, Alfred Hitchcock. Thompson uses suspense as a means of conveying the life-or-death intensity of the encounters between the family members and Cady. In particular, a scene in which Bowden’s teenage daughter finds herself locked in a cellar with Cady is mercilessly suspenseful and fear-inducing.
In terms of character development, a problem arises in the presentation of the Bowden family. As played by Gregory Peck, the character of Sam Bowden is simply too “good”, too honorable under the circumstances. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to present him as a slightly more flawed individual, only in the sense that it could have contributed to the psychological tension through his reactions to the looming threat being posed on him and his family. Similarly, the characters of the wife and daughter are simply too bland, even wholesome, to inspire the full potential of concern and fear of their encounters with Cady. The masterful technique in the handling of these scenes, particularly in regard to Sam Leavitt’s high contrast black and white cinematography, as well as Bernard Herrmann’s chilling music score, elevate it to a more intense level.
The cast is rounded out by some excellent supporting performances, especially Martin Balsam as the police chief, Jack Kruschen plays Max Cady’s shady attorney, and Telly Savalas is the detective in charge of protecting Bowden and his family. Polly Bergen gives a good performance as Bowden’s wife, but as mentioned above, the role is not terribly interesting enough for much to be done with the character, at least until the final scene.
Cape Fear has been called film noir, that term coined by French critics to refer to a cycle of films to come out of post-war Hollywood (and later New York) dealing with the “dark side” of life, desperation, despair and distrust. Is Cape Fear a film noir? I would say not. For one thing, if the term film noir is taken as a specific definition, then it applies to films produced between 1944 and 1958, either in Hollywood or New York, dealing with the themes and ideas of noir. Secondly, if we think of film noir as more a “state of mind”-a term that could apply to different times and places, then I would still argue that Cape Fear is indeed, not film noir. It fits far more clearly into the psychological thriller-suspense drama. In film noir, Sam Bowden would be a deeply flawed, weak individual who becomes entangled in a nightmare world of fear and despair. Here, he is presented as a good man with a good family. There are distinctions here that involve characters. However, the cinematography and music style are very reminiscent of noir.
Comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake are inevitable. They are two entirely different films, to be sure. Trying to decide if one is “better” is of course ridiculous. However, J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 original is undeniably a masterful creation of suspense and psychological tension that perfectly captures atmosphere and performance for a memorable suspense thriller.