Cape Fear (1962)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by James R. Webb

When I learned that we would be watching Cape Fear in my Intro to Philosophy (Thru Movies) class, I was excited to finally see the Scorsese classic. But when I looked it up before class, I came to the realization that Scorsese’s was actually a remake of a classic Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum film. Much to my surprise, IMDb actually rated the original higher. So when I showed up to class, I was curious which version we would watch. I quietly hoped we would watch the original since it is much shorter, but I would have been happy seeing the Scorsese version too. We watched the original, and boy am I glad we did.

The film is about Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a lawyer in a small Georgia town, and his family. 8 Years ago, Sam testified to put an evil man, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), behind bars. Now Cady has been released is has tracked down Bowden for payback. At first, the annoyance is nothing more than threatening words, but soon those words turn to actions, but Cady is quite smart not to do anything that will get him caught, that is until Bowden hatches a plan of his own to get Cady out of his family’s life once and for all.

The very first thing I took note of was the bombastic score to the film. It reminded me a lot of some of the older, more over the top, scores of thriller films, but it eventually settled in nicely and added a good amount of intrigue and tension to the proceedings. Then I took note of the two fine actors at work. Robert Mitchum was masterful as the scary, mysterious, and psychotic Cady. Whenever he was on screen it seemed unsettling and ominous. He played the character unhinged and with no apparent sense of morals. Gregory Peck on the other hand was just okay. I have seen him before and his a first rate actor, but I felt he was too standard here to draw my attention. He works fine within the framework of the film, but it was nothing special. I was also pleasently surprised when Telly Salavas popped up.

There were a few things that really sold me on the film however. First, the editing was fantastic and the director really did a nice job of creating, and sustaining, tension throughout the film. The sign of any good thriller, J. Lee Thompson creates mystery and intrigue and provides as few answers as possible, leaving the audience on a need to know basis. But what really stuck out to me was the cinematography.

The use of shadows was fantastic, adding the to sense of mystery and the unknown. They even did The Graduateesque shot with Mitchum framed by a doorway overlooking a seductive woman lying on the bed. But of course this film predates The Graduate. They also use interference in front of characters faces to symbolize the jail that Cady is placing the characters. I first noticed it when a drifter Cady was wooing was shot with the steering wheel of the car in front of her face. At first I found it too be off putting and sloppy, but when the camera kept doing it, and in more obvious ways, I started to catch on. The same drifter is later shot with the bedframe in front of her, a la Faye Dunaway at the beginning of Bonnie and Clyde, creating a prison built by Cady. Iron fences and a slew of other things were also used for this effect, which was something that brought a lot to the unsettling nature of the film.

There is little I have to say about what I didn’t like about the film. Cape Fear was something that just worked. Everything about it was fun to watch. So, like I said, I am happy that it was this one that we watched in class. But that being said, I am immensely interested to see what Scorsese and De Niro can do to improve, or interpret this stellar original. I almost want to incriminate them already for having even attempted a remake of such a great film, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that they made it their own. But it will still stand that the original Cape Fear is a very well made thriller.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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