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CAPE FEAR 1962
Movie Review

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CAPE FEAR 1962 MOVIECAPE FEAR 1962
Movie Reviews

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas.
Review by Jane Hopkins


SYNOPSIS:

Small-town lawyer Sam Bowden's life becomes torturous when Max Cady re-enters his life. Cady went to jail for 8 years after Bowden testified that Cady attacked a young woman. Now that Cady has been released, he begins to terrorize Bowden and his family, particularly targeting Bowden's daughter, Nancy. Initially, Cady uses his newfound knowledge of the law (learned in prison) to annoy the Bowdens, then poisons the family dog... Who's next ?

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REVIEW:

“Cape Fear” is the story of lawyer Sam Bowden and his family, whose peaceful lives are threatened by a vengeful ex-con. Max Cady went to prison for fourteen years after Sam caught him assaulting a young woman, and in that time, the criminal has lost his family and his social standing. Now Cady wants revenge, and he’ll do whatever he can to get it. The lowlife is far smarter than he looks, and Sam soon runs out of legal options for dealing with him. With his family’s safety at stake, will Sam allow himself to use some decidedly less-than-legal options instead?

Based on the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald, this is one of those movies that asks the audience, “What would you do in this situation?” Most of us would object to the idea of killing a person, but what if it were the only way to make sure our loved ones were safe? That’s the moral quandary Sam finds himself in, and it’s suspenseful to see him grapple with such a decision. As a lawyer, he is meant to uphold the law no matter what. But when the law fails him, Sam must ask how far he’s willing to go to protect those he loves.

Part of what makes Max Cady so frightening is that there’s no mistaking his intentions: the film makes it crystal clear that he intends to rape Sam’s wife and practically prepubescent daughter. “Cape Fear” is surprisingly frank when it comes to the subject of rape, and while the word itself is never said, it contains scenes which are disturbing even by today’s standards. One of the most unsettling sequences involves a drifter who Cady picks up from a bar. The jaded woman thinks she’s got him all figured out, but she realizes all too late what kind of animal he is. Although we don’t see what happens, we see her terror moments before and her devastation – not to mention her bruises – afterward. The beaten woman tells the police that she could never bear to describe what Cady did to her. She also explains that Cady told her to consider the assault a “sample” of what awaited her should she press charges. It’s disturbing proof that Cady’s mission in life is to spread misery and chaos.

The cast is excellent all-around, with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum going head-to-head as Sam Bowden and Max Cady. As adversaries, they’re perfectly matched: Peck’s dignity provides the ideal contrast for Mitchum’s menace. Polly Bergen exudes strength and class as Sam’s wife Peggy, while Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas lend solid support as the police chief and private detective who try to help the Bowden family. Lori Martin is sympathetic as Nancy Bowden, and her final standoff with Cady should make any parent squirm. Finally, Barrie Chase is haunting as Diane, Cady’s victim.

Director J. Lee Thompson creates a tense atmosphere, keeping us guessing as to where Cady is and what he’s planning to do. Screenwriter James R. Webb contributes some wonderful dialogue, giving Mitchum some particularly chilling lines. The most frightening is probably this promise that Cady makes to Sam: “I got somethin' planned for your wife and kid that they ain't never gonna forget. They ain't never gonna forget it, and neither will you, Counselor.” Although the character is a violent one, his dialogue reminds us that he’s also crafty, and that’s part of what makes him so dangerous. He’s studied the law, and understands how to torment the Bowdens without getting caught.

Bernard Hermann’s score is perfectly suited to the ominous tone of the movie, so much so that when Martin Scorsese remade “Cape Fear” in 1991, Hermann’s music was adapted by Elmer Bernstein and used again.

When it comes to this movie’s ending, the viewer could see it either as poetic justice or as a cop-out. It asks us to depend on a legal system that, at least in the context of this film, has seriously failed to protect those in need. On the other hand, one could argue that it lets the Bowdens emerge relatively unscathed, particularly in Sam’s case. It’s a question of morality and justice, so it will be very much up to the viewer as an individual.

“Cape Fear” is an unsettling thriller that still holds up today. It reminds us of the evil that resides in people like Max Cady, and asks us how far we would go to protect ourselves and our families from these very human monsters.

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CAPE FEAR 1962


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