There are two versions of Cape Fear out there.
The one that most people seem to know and which regularly shows up on cable is the 1991 version. This version was directed by Martin Scorsese and features Oscar-nominated performances from Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis. This is the version that has De Niro speaking in a broad Southern accent and attacking people while speaking in tongues. If you’ve ever watched a rerun of an old sitcom and wondered why the laugh track was going wild at the sight of a tattooed prisoner lifting weights in a cell while portentous music boomed in the background, it’s because you were watching a parody of Scorsese’s Cape Fear.
That, however, is not the first version of Cape Fear.
The first version of Cape Fear came out in 1962. It was a black-and-white film that was directed by J. Lee Thompson. In this version, the recently released rapist, Max Cady, is played by Robert Mitchum. Sam Bowden, the attorney that Cady blames for his incarceration, is played by Gregory Peck. Whereas the Scorsese version was highly stylized, the original Cape Fear is brutally straight forward. (While Scorsese’s Cape Fear goes on for over two hours, the original Cape Fear tells its story in a brisk 100 minutes.) While I think that Scorsese’s Cape Fear has its strong points, the original Cape Fear is superior in almost every way.
The original is certainly far more frightening than the remake. What the original may lack in stylization, it makes up for in plausibility. It’s scary because you can imagine everything in the film actually happening. Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck may both be iconic film stars but they’re also believable as human beings.
For modern audiences, it’s easy to smirk at Peck with his upright image and his sonorous voice but what made Peck a great actor was his ability to make it all seem natural. Peck never seemed like he was acting like an honest man who always tried to do the right thing. Instead, he simply was that man. It’s perhaps significant that Peck played Sam Bowden the same year that he played another honest lawyer, Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird. The only real difference between them is that, whereas Atticus was always confident and sure of himself, Sam is frequently helpless. He knows that Max is stalking him and his family and he’s just as aware that there’s nothing he can do about it. When Max rapes a woman (Barrie Chase) that he meets at a bar, she refuses to testify against him. When Sam’s dog turns up dead, everyone knows that Max killed him but there’s no way to prove it. When Sam hires three men to intimidate Max, Max beats them up and promptly tries to get Sam disbarred. When Sam finally resorts to plotting Max’s murder, we’re seeing Atticus Finch pushed beyond his limit.
As for Robert Mitchum, his animalistic performance is frightening precisely because it feels very real. Everyone has known a Max Cady, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. Max gives a fiercely physical performance, often appearing shirtless and strutting through his scenes with a sexual arrogance that’s both frightening and, at times, far more tempting than anyone would want to admit. The scenes in which Max attacks Barrie Chase and Polly Bergen (who plays Peck’s wife) are absolutely terrifying but, for me, the most disturbing moments in Cape Fear are the moments when Max is silent. Even when he’s not speaking, Mitchum allows you to see every depraved thought going through is head.
What’s the scariest moment for me? When the camera catches Max watching Sam’s teenage daughter (Lori Martin). It’s not just that I know what’s going on in Mitchum’s mind as he stares at her. It’s because I know what it’s like to be watched. It’s a scene that’s unsettling because it makes me consider just how many Max Cadys are out there right now.
The battle between Max and Sam is a fascinating one. In prison, Max studied enough law to become as knowledgeable about how to manipulate it as Sam. Under pressure, Sam grows more violent and more willing to circumvent his oath to uphold the same law that Max is now using against him. It makes for a frightening film, one that will stick with you long after you watch it.