Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review – Cape Fear

September 15, 2011

Cape Fear – US, 1962

Sometimes timing is indeed everything. The original Cape Fear was released just one year after Town without Pity, Gottfried Reinhardt’s searing indictment of a legal system that has periodically allowed alleged rape victims to be questioned as if they were the ones on trial. In the film, the practice has tragic consequences for the young girl the law should have protected. In a way, Cape Fear picks up where Town without Pity left off. Its antagonist is a criminal who is well aware of how the legal system works and of just how easily it can be manipulated to make it seem like the victim of a sex crime was in fact a willing participant. In one particularly telling scene, a traumatized victim is pleaded with to testify against her attacker. She reflects upon the TV coverage that is sure to follow if she does, on the pictures in the print media, the never-ending questions, the presence of her parents in the courtroom, and her own conflicted feelings of shame and anger and decides to get on the first train out of town. The private investigator seems to understand her decision.

Cape Fear is essentially a psychological thriller in which a recently released criminal named Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) seeks revenge against Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the man whose testimony put Cady behind bars for eight and a half years. Cady went in to prison a violent sociopath; when he got out, he was even more dangerous - a violent sociopath with enough knowledge of the law to make it virtually impossible for law enforcement to stop him. And as the film progresses, Cady’s actions becomes increasingly more sinister, and in turn Bowden’s become more desperate, culminating in a thrilling conclusion that, if you really think about it, remains highly questionable both legally and morally.

In most movies of this sort, the person hell bent of revenge hides in the shadows and waits for the perfect moment to strike. It’s the anticipation of a strike, as well as the eerie music that often accompanies it, that most often creates suspense in viewers. However, Cape Fear is different, for Cady doesn’t hide. From the film’s opening scene in a crowded courtroom, it’s clear that he wants to be seen. When his attempt is unsuccessful, he follows Bowden to his car, reaches in through an open window, and yanks the keys out of the ignition before Bowden can drive off, thereby ensuring that Cady is noticed this time. His Cuban hat and long cigar help to ensure that even those without any history with him are able to spot him a mile away, which is by design of course, for knowing that there is nothing keeping him away from his prey makes him all the more frightening. I’d go so far as to say that he’s one of the most terrifying villains ever put on film.

Mitchum and Peck give terrific performances, and the two men play off each other well. I would venture that Mitchum’s performance is the one people will talk about, but that’s probably because his character, much like the Joker in The Dark Knight, is trying to provoke a response from a character that believes in both social and legal order, and it’s only in Peck’s subtle, stoic performance that we can see just how good Cady is at this game. I also enjoyed the scenes between Bowden and his wife Nancy (Lori Martin). The two of them talk to each other with remarkable honesty, and more than once, she pulls him back from the brink just before he crosses a line that no one should cross. In addition, the film ends on a rather powerful note, and Bowden’s final words are as thought-provoking today as they were when the film was first released. I wonder what it says about us that they don’t appear in the remake. (on DVD)

4 stars

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