The following review is completely spoiler free!
I was always a big fan of the 1991 ‘Cape Fear’ remake directed by Martin Scorsese which starred Robert De Niro as the ex convict searching for revenge against the family of Nick Nolte, who originally defended him. It was a fantastic film and to be completely honest with you, when I first saw it I was totally unaware that it was in fact a remake.
So finally I decided to buy the original 1962 version which stars Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, the ex convict who has just been released after an 8 year jail term. Cady wants revenge on Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), particularly targeting his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and his daughter Nancy, after he was instrumental in putting Cady behind bars.
There’s something great about watching a black and white film, because of the lack of technology available they always have this incredibly simple and natural feel to them. There is none of the modern day camera tricks (apart from one short dream sequence that Peggy has) and I love it because of that. I can’t exactly praise the director J. Lee Thompson for this because he couldn’t have done it even if he had wanted to, it’s just how it was back in those days. It certainly is very refreshing to see though.
I don’t know why but I was sceptical going into it that it wouldn’t make me feel tense because of that lack of technology and camera tricks that we have become so familiar with today. How wrong was I?! This film builds up tension masterfully and the way it is structured allows it all to build to a crescendo in the final moments that really does drag you to the edge of your seat and refuses to let you move back again.
I cannot fault the acting from the two leads, especially Robert Mitchum as Max Cady who I thought was very captivating. However I did have a slight problem with Peggy and the daughter Nancy. I mean, both were fine but in a film of this quality, fine just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid and so they did stand out as a little weak and also very bloody whiny! My god, particularly Polly Bergen who in one scene spends the entirety of it screaming like a little bitch! I get it, being stalked by an ex convict can’t be fun but c’mon, pull yourself together woman! I very nearly resorted to muting the scene it was that bad.
The music does a sterling job of building the tension, and there are moments when it will suddenly pick up a gear and almost make you jump. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is seeing how Sam Bowden and Police Chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) attempt to use certain aspects of the law to put Cady away, because initially he isn’t actually breaking any laws which makes their job of prosecuting him extremely difficult.
‘Cape Fear’ proves that you don’t need lots of blood, swearing and god awful jump scares to make a genuinely suspenseful film. All you need is a strong story and good acting. Robert Mitchum comes across as this sick, twisted man without ever raising his voice and he only ever gets aggressive and physical towards the end. The fact that we are never sure of his intentions makes the whole thing far more unsettling than it would be if we knew precisely what he planned to do.
The final showdown on the houseboat is gripping and it doesn’t let you down either after the rest of the film has brilliantly led to this point. The action swings back and forth between Cady and Bowden, both of whom spend time in the driver’s seat making it very hard to predict the final outcome.
A lesson and a reminder of how to execute the perfect thriller. ‘Cape Fear’ felt way ahead of its time and many thrillers since have followed this formula but rarely producing the same effect or level of impact. It’s a shame that we seem to have lost that today, we do still occasionally get genuinely gripping thrillers but too many draw on uninspiring, clichéd techniques to try and engage us but they all get found out when compared to films like this.
The biggest draw is the 28 minute ‘The Making of Cape Fear’ which features interviews with Gregory Peck and the director J. Lee Thompson. Many interesting nuggets can be found here, including who J. Lee Thompson really wanted to play Nancy Bowden. They also give their thoughts on the Martin Scorsese directed remake.
There is also a 5 minute collection of stills and short clips from the film, as well as a small collection of posters for the film. Other extras include production notes and background on the cast and filmmakers.