Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Martin Balsam
Not Rated (probable PG-13 for Violence)
The best scene in "Cape Fear" comes at around the halfway mark. A lawyer named Sam Bowden (Peck) is having a drink with Max Cady (Mitchum), a recently released ex-con who is stalking Bowden and his family. Bowden is trying to ascertain the amount of money it will take for Cady to stop harassing his family, but Mas has something far more sinister in mind than revenge. He has the gall and arrogance to explain his plan, which is as disturbing as it is legal, to his victim. Cady believes that it was Bowden whose testimony put him behind bars for 8 years, and he wants to make sure that Bowden suffers for it. 8 years is a long time to nurse thoughts of revenge.
It's a gripping scene because Mitchum and Peck are so good. Unfortunately, it's one of the few elements in this movie that works. Everything else is either half-baked or not pushed far enough for fear of running afoul of the censors.
Character development, with rare exceptions (such as "Black Hawk Down" or "Bloody Sunday"), is a must have. Understanding the characters' personalities is how the audience knows how to feel about them, whether they be a hero or a villain. But the characters here are so thinly written that, despite the valiant efforts of its cast, it's impossible to feel anything for them. Directorial prowess and strong acting can help, but you can't make a good movie without a good script. Especially in a psychological thriller.
However, arguably the most important part of a thriller is pacing. Essential, essential, essential. A thriller must start slow and slowly build to the gripping climax. This is set in stone and absolutely non-negotiable. Even slow-burning thrillers like "Michael Clayton" do this. But in "Cape Fear" the set up is rushed through so quickly that the contrivances that are inevitable in every thriller are magnified. Sam Bowden gets pushed to the limit too quickly. And right from the start, just about everyone in town is on his side. I know that Bowden is portrayed by Gregory Peck, who was the go-to guy to play the unshakably moral hero (he did win an Oscar for playing Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), but come on. It's a little too hard to swallow, especially so early in the film.
"Cape Fear" is not a terrible movie. It's never uninteresting and director J. Lee Thompson manages to generate some suspense on occasion, including a creepy stalking sequence that reminded me of "Halloween," although John Carpenter did this sort of thing better. The performances are strong, and for once in an older movie, the mother and daughter are written and acted believably. Nancy (Martin) is smart and tough rather than precocious and stupid, and Peggy (Bergen) has quite a big backbone, as opposed to playing the typical June Cleaver clone.
But it all feels so restricted. For a thriller like this to work, the film has to spare the audience nothing. The villain must be insidiously evil and the hero must be pushed to the absolute limit. But the stakes never feel high enough. Max Cady, with a constant smirk or sneer, is certainly worth of our hate and Sam Bowden is easy to sympathize with, but the things that Max Cady does feel kind of downplayed. Max Cady has to be absolutely merciless and ruthless, but he's really not. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid of running afoul of the Hays Code, which was even more restrictive than the MPAA (if you can believe that). Not only did it censor what could or could not be shown, it limited the way stories could be told. Such an inability for "Cape Fear" to breathe stifles much of its possible suspense.
"Cape Fear" was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorcese. It was originally going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but he switched projects with Scorcese because Scorcese thought that "Schindler's List," which is the film that Spielberg attempted to get his good friend to direct, should be made by a Jewish filmmaker and because Spielberg told him that if he made an easy hit, he could get bigger projects and more creative control. After seeing the original, I'm excited to see the remake. It seems to me that Scorcese would be the ideal person to take this project. Especially if he has Robert DeNiro playing the role of Max Cady. The review of that will be coming soon.