Editor’s Note: David Lehman, our former “Next Line, Please” columnist, will be writing a monthly column on classic, often overlooked, movies.
For my opening salvo, I picked Cape Fear (1962). I welcome comments and suggestions, and hope you will forgive me if now and then I give away a plot twist. It would be an interesting challenge to talk about Vertigo without revealing the central deception, but I bet it can be done.
Horror is what we feel witnessing the aftermath of a fatal car wreck. Terror is what we feel in anticipation of something terrible that has not yet happened.
What Cape Fear (1962) offers is a pure example of a third kind of sensation, one that attracts even as it repels: menace. Menace is Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, newly released from an eight-year prison sentence, a cigar in his mouth and a Panama hat on his head, into the heat of summer in a small, southern town. Cady embodies evil and Mitchum embodies Cady, a character who is as cunning as he is vicious.
Although he plays an unreformed sex offender who beats up women and has no business gaining control of the viewer’s attention, Cape Fear is Mitchum’s picture from the moment he appears on the scene, confronting the attorney who put him behind bars. “Hello, Counselor. Remember me?” Cady is back with a vengeance.
Every time Mitchum’s character addresses Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) as “counselor,” his derision is palpable. And the Bowden family is vulnerable. Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) is right to be nervous—she will be attacked. But it is Nancy (Lori Nelson), their teenage daughter, who is the primary target of Cady’s lust and rage.
Cape Fear resembles the great 1949 James Cagney gangster movie White Heat inasmuch as the protagonist in both cases is the bad guy. But I’m also reminded of High Noon, in which the protagonist is the good guy (stoic, tall, righteous Gary Cooper). Both High Noon and Cape Fear exemplify the maxim that hell hath no fury like the wrath of an ex-con set on revenge. With Cady, the maxim gets another twist: hell hath no fury like that of a furious man intent on pushing his adversary to the brink.
Cape Fear argues that there is such a thing as evil, a darkness that cannot be rehabilitated. While High Noon asserts that nothing less than violence will do to eliminate evil, Cape Fear hedges its bets. At the film’s end, Bowden points a gun at Cady but refrains from pulling the trigger, leaving his fate to the justice system.
If Peck seems uncomfortable playing the upright attorney, a role which would ordinarily serve him well, it’s because from his point of view, the film is a study in frustration. Evil is powerful and corrosive. The effect Cady has on Bowden is striking: he brings out the worst in the man.
As the movie progresses, Bowden’s tactics to defeat Cady steadily escalate. First he prevails on the police chief (Martin Balsam) to chase Cady out of town. Because he has committed no crime, the chief refuses. Next Bowden hires a detective (Telly Savalas), hoping to charge Cady with lewd vagrancy, or worse. But the terrified prostitute whom Cady beats up refuses to file charges.
When Bowden sees Cady staring insolently and lustfully at his daughter Nancy, the lawyer punches the ex-con. But that merely augments Cady’s case that he is being systematically harassed. Bowden then offers Cady $20,000 if he agrees to leave town, but Cady rejects the offer as inadequate. He makes his point persuasively by dividing the amount by eight, the number of years he spent in prison. At this point, Bowden takes up an option he rejected earlier in the film: he hires three thugs to beat up Cady, who survives the attack, tough guy that he is.
Having struck out three times, Bowden hires an accomplice, puts his family on a houseboat in Cape Fear, and makes plans to entrap Cady by catching him in a criminal act and shooting him in self-defense. This is the movie’s apotheosis: the character who has undergone the most change is Bowden.
Upright is uptight in Cape Fear. All the sexual energy in the movie comes from Mitchum, whom we see shirtless more than once, in contrast to Bowden and the police chief’s suits. Cady, on the other hand, can be characterized as the unrestrained id—with the added menace that his cunning intelligence brings to bear. Two characters call him an animal; a third calls him a beast. True enough … but he’s played by Mitchum. Perhaps the chief reason that Cape Fear is a classic is Mitchum’s sensual, almost bestial appeal, which is advanced even as we are told repeatedly that he is a barbarian. In the film’s most riveting sequence, Cady picks up a prostitute, Diane Taylor (Barrie Cross), at a bar. A “drifter,” to use the movie’s euphemism, she has just arrived in town and is full of self-loathing. “Max Cady, what I like about you is … you’re rock bottom,” she says in the car on the way to a hotel room. With bitter sarcasm, she adds, “It’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.”
When we next see the two, Taylor is asleep on the bed in a black slip. Cady stands shirtless, sizing her up. When she wakes, without either of them saying a word, Taylor immediately tries to get away, as if she has an instinctive awareness of the beating she is about to undergo. By the time the police arrive, Cady has escaped out the back, and Taylor lies on the floor with a split lip and a black eye.
As a religious question, the problem of evil has to do with how we can reconcile the concept of a benevolent, omnipotent God with an atrocity on earth. As a secular question, we may ask whether there is such a thing as evil—an evil that is not simply a function of external factors and that cannot be remedied by enlightened attempts at rehabilitation. Max Cady profited from his years in the clink by acquiring not a sense of morality but legal know-how that he uses to further his criminal ends.
In 1991, Cape Fear was remade with Robert De Niro as Cady and Nick Nolte as Bowden. It is definitely worth seeing—De Niro gives a strong performance—but the original is unparalleled.
Black and white. Directed by J. Lee Thompson. 1962.
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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology. His book One Hundred Autobiographies has just been published.