Cape Fear

Year: 1962
Studio: Universal
Director: J Lee Thompson
Writer: James R Webb/John D McDonald
Cast: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Telly Savalas, Edward Platt

I can't remember if I realised the 1991 version of Cape Fear was a remake when I first saw it, but as soon as I found out I knew I had to watch it, if only to see if Robert Mitchum – whose mystique I know of but who was before my time, to be honest – was as scary playing Max Cady as Robert De Niro was.

When you recall when it was made (1962), this was a shocking and disturbing film. Seeing the ultra-masculine Mitchum – sweaty, sneering and vengeful – drag Nancy (then 14 years old) along the riverbank with his hand clamped over her mouth after referring to her earlier as 'juicy' will give you shivers.

The word 'rape' is never used, nor is it overtly alluded to, and Mitchum as Cady is never seen to be more than a guy who shoves girls around – we see the bruises later. But just like the shower scene in Psycho , Cape Fear was so well made and the horrors Cady was capable of so well, it no doubt took on a terrifying air all its own and convinced audiences they saw far worse than they actually did.

It's almost identical in plot to Scorsese's remake. As loving husband, father and lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) goes about his business, a fearsome crim he put away eight years before named Max Cady comes back to torment him for all the years he spent in the can. And the most effective way to get back at Sam is to terrorise his family and target his beautiful wife and innocent young daughter.

Although a thug, Cady's also smart, never putting a foot wrong legally and giving Bowden no course of action against him, even when he brings friends in the police in. Instead, Cady's going to wait until Sam and his beloved girls are too far from help and then strike. In the film's other scariest sequence, Mitchum drawls that what he did to his own wife when he got out of jail is 'a picnic' compared to what he's going to do to Nancy and Peggy.

Scorsese's version is more effective only because the era it was made in allowed for a more graphic representation of what Cady was capable of, but the code of what you could and couldn't show on screens in the early 60s forced an approach that proves just how much you can achieve with comparatively little.

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