Cape Fear (1962): J. Lee Thompson’s Brilliant Noir Crime, Starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum (Masterpieces; Levy’s Great Films)

Cape Fear, an extremely tight and taut psychological noir thriller, released in 1962, is arguably J. Lee Thompson’s masterpieces. That it was a follow-up to The Guns of Navarone, an all-star WWII adventure, which was his most commercially popular film, attests to this director’s incredible creativity over a short period of time.


Our Grade: A (***** out of ******)

We have just added Cape Fear to our list of masterpieces–Levy’s Great Films.  It is far superior to Scorsese’s 1991 remake, starring Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro, which is passable but not great.

Adapted by James R. Webb from the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald, the movie boasts a superlative cast, headed by Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Martin Balsam, and Polly Bergen.

Produced by Spielberg for Universal, Cape Fear was directed in 1991 by Martin Scorsese, who cast Peck, Mitchum and Balsam in cameo roles, but the film is inferior to the 1962 picture in every respect.

cape_fear_2_thompsonAfter spending eight years in prison for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is released. He promptly tracks down Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a Georgia lawyer whom he holds personally responsible for his conviction; Sam interrupted his attack and testified against him.

Cady begins to stalk and threaten Bowden’s family. He kills the Bowdens’ dog, though Sam cannot prove Cady did it. Bowden’s friend, police chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), attempts to intervene, but he cannot prove Cady guilty of any crime.

cape_fear_3_thompsonBowden hires Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas), a private detective. Cady brutally attacks a promiscuous woman, Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase), when she brings him home, but the private eye or Bowden cannot persuade her to testify. (A typical attitude of female rape victims at the time).

Bowden hires three thugs to beat up Cady and persuade him to leave town, but the plan backfires. Cady’s angry lawyer then vows to have Bowden disbarred.

Afraid for his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and 14-year-old daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), Bowden takes them to their houseboat in Cape Fear. Bowden makes it seem as though he has gone to a completely different location. He fully expects Cady to follow his wife and daughter, and he plans on killing Cady. He and a local deputy hide nearby, but Cady realizes that and kills the deputy.

cape_fear_4_thompsonCady first attacks Mrs. Bowden on the boat, causing Bowden to go to her rescue, before swimming back to shore to attack the daughter.

Ambiguous Ending

The two men engage in a final violent fight on the river bank. Bowden overpowers Cady but decides not to kill him so that he spends the rest of his life in jail. In the film’s last scene, the Bowden family sits together on the boat, though there is no question that their traumatic experience has left indelible impact on each one of them and on the marriage itself.

Many stars wanted to be in the film. Rod Steiger wanted to play Max Cady, but he backed off when he heard that Mitchum was the first choice. Telly Savalas (sporting hair in this films) was screen-tested for the role of the villain, but he was later cast as private eye Charlie Sievers.

Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Jack Palance, and John Wayne, were all considered for the lead role of the attorney, Sam Bowden. Peck was a replacement for Heston, who was originally cast, and it was Peck who insisted on getting Mitchum as his counterpart.  This was a banner year for Peck, who in the same year also played the best role of his career, the liberal father-lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar (his first and only prize, at his fifth nomination).

cape_fear_5_thompsonThompson had always envisioned the feature as a black and white noir. To that extent, he imbues the tale with Hitchcockian elements, such as unusual lighting angles, an eerie musical score, close-ups, and subtle hints of abuse rather than fully graphic depictions of the violence Cady inflicts on the family.

A twisted thriller, which holds your attention from first frame to last, “Cape Fear” is one of the best film noir of the decade; it was released the same year as “The Manchurian Candidate,” by John Frankenheimer, another brilliant and underestimated director.

Herrmann’s Brilliant Score

cape_fear_6_thompsonComposing one of his most haunting scores, Bernard Herrmann uses a reduced version of the symphony orchestra.  He adds to a 46-piece string section (slightly larger than usual), 4 flutes (doubling on 2 piccolos, 2 alto flutes in G, and 2 bass flutes in C), and 8 French Horns.

The outdoor scenes were shot on location in Savannah, Georgia, Stockton, California.  The interior scenes were done at Universal Soundstage. Mitchum had a real-life aversion to Savannah, where as a teenager, he had been charged with vagrancy and put on a chain gang. This resulted in a number of the outdoor scenes’ being shot at Ladd’s Marina in Stockton, including the conflict on the houseboat at the end of the movie.

cape_fear_7_thompsonThis scene where Mitchum attacks Bergen on the houseboat was almost completely improvised. Thompson suddenly told a crew member: “Bring me a dish of eggs!” Mitchum’s rubbing the eggs on Bergen was not scripted and Bergen’s reactions were real. She also suffered back injuries from being knocked around. She felt the impact of the “attack” for days. While filming the scene, Mitchum cut open his hand, leading Bergen to recall: “his hand was covered in blood, my back was covered in blood. We just kept going, caught up in the scene. They came over and physically stopped us.”

Changes from Page to Screen

cape_fear_8_thompsonIn the original novel The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald, Cady was a soldier court-martialed and convicted on then Lieutenant Bowden’s testimony for the brutal rape of a 14-year-old girl. The censors banned the use of the word “rape,” and held that showing Cady as a soldier reflected adversely on U.S. military

Although the word “rape” was entirely removed from the script before shooting, the film still enraged the censors, who worried that “there was a continuous threat of sexual assault on a child.”

cape_fear_9_thompsonBritish censors required extensive editing and deleting of specific scenes. After making around 6 minutes of cuts, the film still nearly garnered a British X rating (“Suitable for those aged 16 and older”, not necessarily meaning there was pornographic content).

Faux Pas

In a crucial scene, Cady goes to the airport to find out the flight schedule of Sam Bowden, pretending he wants to send him a package. The friendly clerk behind the desk readily discloses details about Sam’s comings and goings.  At the time, this kind of information was not secretive and could be revealed.  Now a days, however, it is improbable that such a thing could happen.

Intertextuality: Hitchcock

Cape Fear was made two years after Psycho and the association to Hitchcock’s 1960s masterpiece are many and varied.  First, the casting of Martin Balsam as a police chief investigator is similar to the one he had played in Psycho, only there he was a private eye (and ended up murdered).  Second, Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant, menacing score recalls his music for Hitchcock’s Psycho as well a North by Northwest.  Finally, this film was edited by Hitchcock’s reliable collaborator, George Tomasini.


cape_fear_10_thompsonGregory Peck as Sam Bowden

Robert Mitchum as Max Cady

Polly Bergen as Peggy Bowden

Lori Martin as Nancy Bowden

Martin Balsam as Mark Dutton

Jack Kruschen as Dave Grafton

Telly Savalas as Charlie Sievers

Barrie Chase as Diane Taylor

Paul Comi as George Garner

Edward Platt as Judge


Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Produced by Sy Bartlett
Screenplay by James R. Webb
Based on The Executioners by John D. MacDonald

Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Edited by George Tomasini
Production company: Melville Productions Talbot Productions
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date: April 12, 1962
Running time: 106 minutes