Gregory Peck... Robert Mitchum... Martin Balsam... Polly Bergen... Bernard Herrmann... J. Lee Thompson... John R. McDonald... Telly Savalas... Sam Leavitt... James R. Webb...
This list comprises all the pluses that go into making a thriller of lust, revenge, retribution and calculated rumblings of a volcano ready to blow, in Cape Fear. This is not the pale imitation that was directed by Martin Scorcese in 1991. That later production was an unmitigated conglomerate of overacting, blood and heavy violence galore, teamed with a hammed performance by Robert De Niro, although Mitchum and Peck provided small cameos in the film and were a much needed relief from all the pyrotechnics.
In the much better realized original version of Cape Fear, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a lawyer in a laidback Florida town, confronts his worst nightmare in the form of Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a man he helped to incarcerate 8 1/2 years previously in Baltimore, Maryland. Cady has come to extract the vengeance that he feels is his due, by stalking Bowden, his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and young teenage daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin), and wreaking havoc in the process.
A game of psychological cat and mouse entails, with the police chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) and private investigator, Charles Siever (Telly Savalas) being called into play as enforcers and blockers in the line of defense that is orchestrated to prevent Cady from advancing his desires and seeing them come to fruition. The story that develops runs the gamut from law-abiding citizens seeking to remedy the course of events through attrition, to seeing their machinations destroyed through the sly maneuverings of Cady and his knowledge of the very law that is attempting to lasso him in.
Robert Mitchum as Max Cady has a clear grasp of the situation that he has been called to perform. He has gotten into the skin of the beast and emits a persona of a cobra, laying in wait, ready to strike at the drop of a hat at the least bit of invitation, as he sees it. Mitchum has the look of a man who has been around the block more than a few times and in the process, has beaten his way to the top, and left broken bodies and psyches in his wake. He has not the slightest redeeming value to him and his vulgar and crass attitude towards others is noted with due process. He is a bad rash that is so hard to shake and he leaves the scars of an emotional rollercoaster ride in his wake. Mitchum is 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' and that's the way it should be. It can be said that Cady is the devil personified, and one would not be off the mark in its utterance.
Peck's portrayal as Sam Bowden is masterful in its deliberate pacing, as he strays from the upstanding citizen along the path of criminal intent as Cady draws him into the same mire he has called home these past years. Will Bowden become as animalistic as the man stalking his human prey or will upstanding virtues project a revenge that Cady never intended to have happen?
The supporting cast of players lend credence to the appointments they have undertaken. Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas etch memorable sequences, with Savalas taking top honours as the street wise private dick. His Judas goat leading Cady into the final nightmare has that little extra something that conveys a bit of film noir about it. If there is one small fly in the ointment, it is with Lori Martin. Her acting as the teenage daughter of Peck was a little too Lolita-ish, although it was not entirely the fault of the actress. The skimpy shorts outfits sent off the wrong message to the potential pedophile within Cady and to this reviewer. Virginal, they did not look!
The score by Bernard Herrmann was a huge plus, and he wears the moniker of 'master of his craft' with complete credibility. His music takes on the nuances of terror, southern hospitality, warmth, and typical Herrmann in a Hitchcock sort of way. In fact, almost everything about this production of Cape Fear seemed to scream, 'this is a Hitchcock film!' I almost expected to see Hitch make his way across the screen, in a comical cameo, as he is wont to do with his films. A film of this nature would not have been complete without the renderings of this consummate professional.
The black and white photography by Sam Leavitt paints pictures as only this medium can do. The lights and shadows, the sunny days, the dark of night, the portraits of evil and good are brushstroked with a tendency to reveal the true natures of the people they capture.
John D. McDonald's script, based on his novel, The Executioners, is taut and compact. His characters are drawn from everyday life and are set on a course guaranteed to equate the emotions of a small multitude, and to cast a feeling of care and concern from the audience as to what does or does not happen to them. McDonald's feel for the essence of the hatred of Cady and the potential fall from grace that Sam Bowden skirts with, are communicated front and centre.
Direction by J. Lee Thompson is standard fare. He simply holds his flock in minor check, allowing them freedom to let the tale spin itself into the web of terror and horror that we see unfold before us.
It must be reiterated again, that one must not accept 'any imitations.' Cape Fear, the original, is the one to bet your money on. Let the pretenders to the throne allow their death throes and sense of gotterdamerung to thrust itself across the screen. MY Cape Fear is the winner, hands down