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Cape Fear Movie PosterCape Fear

(American, 1962, 105 minutes, b&w, 16mm)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson



Sam Bowden
Robert Mitchum . . . . . . . . . . Max Cady
Polly Bergen . . . . . . . . . . Peggy Bowden
Lori Martin . . . . . . . . . . Nancy Bowden

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

In CAPE FEAR, Sam Bowden, a Florida lawyer, is assailed by a fearsome voice from his past. "Max Cady," a man he’d once put away, has returned. Cady is pure bile, his purpose in life reduced and clarified to unmitigated anger, and he now is bent on tearing apart Bowden’s family, ripping those years he’d spent in prison out of Bowden’s own life. Cady, as played by Robert Mitchum, is deceptive. On the sunlit streets of the small Florida city, he seems initially just preposterous, his obvious strength mere bullying. Mitchum’s oversized frame, and that face that looks as if it was cut with a cold chisel, seem as out of place on Main Street as a dirty joke in a church. But we quickly find out that Max Cady is far more than just incongruous. He is death in a Hawaiian shirt, as sinister and grotesque an incarnation of hatred as ever strode the murderous halls of film noir. His passions rule Cady completely, and his ham-sized fists become the instrument of his desires. Bowden’s danger seems to infect the whole town. The police become increasingly powerless as Cady sets out to pull down the solid edifice of Bowden’s family from the inside and the outside, rampaging through the souls of Bowden’s wife and daughter as Cady comes to own the streets of their town. Soon, they are forced inside. And yet their home is no longer a refuge, but a new killing ground contested by Cady’s constant presence. Cady is the watcher in the woods, his looming presence a frightening and inescapable fact of the Bowden’s lives. Desperate, the Bowdens seek the wilderness, and the Cape Fear River becomes perhaps the greatest allegorical setting in all of film noir.

CAPE FEAR is one of a dozen or so films noir (THE DESPERATE HOURS, THE STRANGER, STRANGE BARGAIN, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, THE WRONG MAN, ACT OF VIOLENCE) that bring noir’s dangers into the living rooms of the middle class. The night world of the film noir, where danger is ordinarily the sole property of lonely private eyes, oily nightclub owners, and lovers-on-the-run, here invades the sanctum of the American family. It is as if, in its later years, the vessel of noir’s wrath has overflowed, darkening the daylit streets and neat homes of the ‘ordinary’ American. After they collide with Cady, the Bowdens are changed by their knowledge of evil, for to know Max Cady is to know venality and the depths of human cruelty. Its not an encounter they can forget, and even Gregory Peck’s stoic integrity begins to show hairline cracks when Cady swaggers into his world. The Bowdens are forcibly carved away from the comforts of community by Cady, forced to fall back entirely on themselves for all their psychic needs.

Mitchum is a sinister monument to the incipient danger that lurks around every corner in film noir. It is no surprise that when Martin Scorcese remade CAPE FEAR in 1991, he found a place in a corner of the film for the still creepy, still potent Mitchum. Even from a spot on the sidelines, Mitchum, his massive body the same huge slab of beef it had been for forty years, could inflect the film with unsurpassable menace. Wisely, Scorcese had his new Max Cady, Robert Deniro, play the part as an outgoing loon, for no one could erase Mitchum’s contrasting portrayal of Max Cady as a man in whom mayhem lurks so deep that it refuses to show itself in his impassive, sad face. Mitchum had already played the Hamlet of film noir in OUT OF THE PAST, a character in whom motives are in constant conflict, seething just below the calm exterior. In CAPE FEAR, Mitchum plays a creature completely molded of evil. He is, as Keith Jarrett once said of Miles Davis, "pure intent." In OUT OF THE PAST, Mitchum is a man absolutely torn, and in CAPE FEAR, a man completely focussed; in the first, he is good struggling to be good, and in the latter, evil seeking to attain new Everests of cruelty. In these two very different films, Mitchum, the genre’s greatest exponent, spans the alpha and omega of the film noir. Together, these portrayals are a mural of the wretched corroded underside of the American Dream. Mitchum remains the perpetual outsider, doomed always to look in on the world of the normal, always to remain unclaimed by the happy, oblivious citizens of the American daytime. As he stalks noir’s dark streets, Mitchum is the death-haunted outsider we fear—and that we wonder if we shall become.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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