Saturday 6 August 2016

Movie Review: Cape Fear (1962)

A psychological family-in-distress thriller, Cape Fear builds momentum through the sheer menace of what may happen. Robert Mitchum's domineering performance as criminal Max Cady towers over the film.

Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a respected lawyer in a small town, where he lives with his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and young daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). Sam is suddenly confronted by Max Cady (Mitchum), a criminal released after serving eight years in prison for sexual assault. Sam's testimony was instrumental in convicting Max, and now the felon seems intent on extracting revenge.

Except that Max does nothing to break the law, satisfying himself with simply intimidating Sam, Peggy and Nancy with his sheer presence. Feeling threatened, Sam turns to his friend police chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) and then private detective Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas) to try and find a reason to either run Max out of town or arrest him. But Max is one step ahead, and he hires lawyer Dave Grafton (Jack Kruschen) to defend his rights. With Sam growing more concerned for the welfare of his family, he decides to stash Peggy and Nancy at a remote Cape Fear houseboat, but all will not go according to plan.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, Cape Fear is a tight, exquisitely paced film, with a superb Bernard Herrmann score adding to the building sense of dread. The eternal conflict between good and bad is crystallized into the threat posed by one man against a wholesome family, and the James R. Webb script quickly etches out uncomfortable truths: the law can only go so far, and resisting evil intentions can easily drive good men like Sam Bowden into previously unthinkable actions.

The film draws its power from Max Cady's stubbornly patient ability to actually do nothing except hover around Sam and his family, breaking no laws. Max instead takes out his demented sexual aggression on call girl Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase), and does so with such ferocity that he chases her out of town rather than turn her into a witness. Instead it is Sam who starts harbouring thoughts of criminality to put an end to the perceived threat, and suddenly the potential victim turns into a budding aggressor, moving both men closer together into a grey zone of emotional turmoil.

To adhere to the sensibilities of the era Cape Fear avoid mentioning rape and paedophilia, but leaves no room for doubt. Cady is a danger to women, particularly young Nancy. Sam's rising levels of paranoia stem not out of a sense of personal danger, but his heightened awareness that he is helpless to protect his wife and daughter. Cady finds opportunities to ogle Nancy in a racy outfit at the bowling alley and then in a bathing suit; by merely walking on the sidewalk he induces a terrorizing ordeal for the young girl in the bowels of her school. Rarely has a film created such horror out of mere potentiality.

Robert Mitchum delivers one of his career best performances, fully occupying the twisted and intimidating personality of Max Cady. Thompson knows exactly what to do with Mitchum: he just let's him be, such that scenes of Cady sitting and walking near enough to the Bowdens create impeccable tension, the ever present Panama hat a symbol of a laidback approach to violence.

With a memorable psychopath leaving an indelible impression on an idyllic small town landscape, Cape Fear is a magnificently ominous thriller.

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