SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
In the 1962 version of Cape Fear, one can see the influence of Alfred Hitchcock on director J. Lee Thompson. The musical score, by Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann, with its heavy instrumental stresses and flutterings that suggest shivers, communicates a feeling of impending sinister events. (Martin Scorsese’s violent, graphic remake has a horrific performance by Robert De Niro and utilizes the same score). The title of the movie is of an actual place in North Carolina, but it also sounds like a location that is cloaked in danger. The story presents the two kinds of America that Truman Capote wanted to expose in his book, In Cold Blood: the respectable, law-abiding, pleasant appearance on the surface, and the ugly underbelly of anger and violence simmering and ready to erupt from beneath that benevolent façade. The movie also asks what recourse do people have when regular law enforcement is not legally able to protect those who are being victimized.
The film starts with Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a vicious ex-con, entering a courthouse, his unlawful presence an affront to a place of justice (does his name imply that he is the maximum cad?). He walks up a flight of stairs and startles a woman who drops some books she is carrying. This image is an indication that Max is a threat to women. Max seems oblivious of her. His lack of either helping her or even acknowledging her presence immediately shows him to be a cold individual who is only focused on his own agenda. He is looking for lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, who also produced the film). (Does Sam's last name suggest he is a potential weapon who might fire an arrow from a “bow” at an enemy?). Max sits down and observes the courtroom proceedings with a clenched mouth and a glacier glare which show his animosity toward Sam.
Outside, as Sam is about to drive away, Max sticks his hand through the driver’s side window of the car and grabs the keys. It is an invasive act which suggests the inability to escape a threatening presence. Max asks if Sam remembers him, and tells him the number of years, months, and days it has been since they last met, which totals more than eight years of incarceration. The details show the impact on Max of their last encounter. Sam does remember Max, and questions whether he blames Sam for what Max did. Max laughs, and says Sam doesn’t understand what’s going on. That means it will take some time for Sam to realize the full extent of what Max’s presence means to Sam. So, there is an ominous implication that this meeting will not be a one-time incident. As a shapely woman walks by, Max’s predatory sexual nature is evident as he talks about how the female’s “wiggle” is meant to arouse them. (In the book on which the movie is based, Max was convicted of raping a young woman, but that seemed too daring at the time, and is not mentioned in this adaptation). Max is always smoking a cigar, and in his case, a cigar is not just a cigar since it could be seen as a phallic symbol (consider General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove). Max then adds a creepy note as Sam drives away by commenting on how Sam’s wife and young daughter are attractive. The intimidation is obvious when Max tells Sam he should give Max’s “love” to his family and says he will be seeing him again. All of these comments on the surface sound acceptable, but the menace is implied, which fits in with the theme of benign appearance versus malevolent reality.
We have lilting, quick-tempo music which reflects Sam’s smiling return home as he hugs his daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). Sam, his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen), and Nancy’s friend go bowling as part of a typical relaxed family outing. Into this supposedly safe space the scary Max arrives. He orders beer, not a cola. He notes the wedding ring on the young waitress’s finger and asks if it means anything to her. He assumes all women are whores and pushes a twenty-dollar bill towards her, asking if that “means” as much. She runs away from his lewd suggestion of prostitution, and he laughs as if confirming his warped assumption that all women are the same. Sam sees Max staring at him, and then misses the chance to make a spare. Max smiles, knowing he has rattled his prey. He even has the audacity to approach Sam in public, creepily saying he was just getting a good look at Sam’s family before he slithers away.
The cautious Sam talks to his friend, Police Chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) about Max. We now get the backstory, as Sam says that he testified against Max eight years prior in Baltimore after he interrupted Max as he was beating up a young woman. She was hospitalized for some time following the assault. Sam says at the trial Max made it clear that he blamed Sam, and now the attorney fears for his family. Dutton wants to help Sam so he orders Max to be picked up for “vagrancy,” a flimsy charge. Sam is beginning to compromise his ethics as he is okay with police harassment here.
Max is at a bar where an inebriated, sexy young woman gives him a seductive look. The police arrive and when one of the cops grabs him, he resists. But, he quickly recovers his veneer of acceptable behavior by saying he will be cooperative, but just doesn’t like being “pawed.” It is an animal term, which fits Max’s bestial personality. At the police station, Max shows he has come prepared for any interrogation by the authorities. He declares that he is not drunk, and he has the right to be examined by his own doctor to ensure that the results of an intoxication test are legitimate. Sam enters the room, and Max agreeably consents to a strip search. Max points out that he legitimately has $5,400 in a bank account, which we later find out came from the sale of his property. So, Dutton can’t charge him with vagrancy. Max says he intends to stay in town for quite a while, which drives home how that it will not be easy for Sam to escape his presence. Sam tells Max to stay off of his property. Max just laughs, which seems like it is absurd that he would trespass, but his response really suggests he doesn’t take the warning seriously and that Sam will not be able to stop him.
The next shot has the camera behind a line of bushes, and as it rises we look at Sam’s house from the vantage point of a stalker. The family dog, Marilyn (a female, Max’s victim of choice) is barking, which indicates the possibility of an intruder, and the sound builds suspense. Then, the barking turns to canine whining, an escalation of approaching danger. Sam and his daughter go to investigate and become alarmed as Peggy runs toward them saying their dog is having a “fit.” They take Marilyn to the veterinarian, who tells Sam he believes that the animal was poisoned with strychnine and could not be saved. Sam realizes that Nancy was meant to see the loss of her dog, which means he knows the poisoning was an act of terror on the part of Max.
Sam shares his apprehension concerning Max with his family and tells Nancy that she must not leave the house or her school area. Max’s intimidation is beginning to sabotage social tranquility by restricting the family’s freedom and peace of mind. Peggy has a dream that contains bits of a conversation she had with Sam. Her anger and fear caused her to say that a man like Max should not have “civil rights.” Her subjective response is understandable, but Sam argued that a man can’t be put away for “what he might do.” He tries to keep to an objective code that requires all to be treated with the same legal requirements for protection against prejudicial impulses. In their talk Sam said that moving away would not stop Max from following, which emphasizes how quickly the course of their safe lives has turned into a road of danger with no exit. Sam knows that a man such as Max thrives on eliciting fear and Sam urged not to give into that emotion. Peggy wakes up from her dream and finds that Sam and Nancy are not in bed. The black and white photography allows no color to brighten the situation, and the shadows cast on the house’s corridors are ominous. As Peggy reaches the bottom of the stairs, no doubt worried that Max might have breached the family castle, she sees what looks like a man wearing a hat and jacket. She is relieved that it is only Sam’s clothes, and that Nancy is getting something to eat while Sam is talking to a policeman who is keeping guard over the house. But, the scene illustrates how Max has spooked Nancy and us to the point that what we see as innocent may contain an element of evil.
Chief Dutton summons Sam in the middle of a case he is arguing. Here we have more disruption of the normal routine. Dutton says that Max has attained attorney Dave Grafton (Dave Kruschen) to represent him (does the first part of his last name imply corruption?). Max is sly as he has hired a lawyer who specializes in police harassment. In a meeting with the four men, Grafton notes numerous incidents where the police have brought Max in for questioning regarding robberies and theft, and searched his home and car after the poisoning of Sam’s dog. Grafton argues that these public displays of police involvement caused defamation of Max’s character and required him to relocate twice. Sam questions why the cops should not be allowed to do their job. Grafton is surprised that the ethical Sam is losing his objectivity and is not able to see when the line is crossed on the part of the authorities. We have here an example of how laws are made to protect individual rights, but how criminals can exploit those safeguards for their own purposes. Sam does score a point when he wonders how Grafton knew police manpower was used to protect his home. Grafton hesitates and says the information was acquired from cops. But, it is obvious Max told his lawyer based on his surveillance of Sam’s home. The threat of legal action against the police is implied, and Max’s exiting line that he will be seeing Sam again sounds mannerly but is actually threatening.
Desperation sets in as Sam wonders what he can do since, as Dutton points out, they can’t arrest a person for what's in his mind in the absence of evidence. Sam sarcastically asks if he is supposed to turn his house into a fort and isolate his family as he hunkers down with a gun. That normal legal means are not sufficient here is evident when Dutton suggests that Sam hire a private investigator, Charles Sievers (Telly Savalas), to dig up something usable.
Max is driving around with the woman in the bar, Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase). When she asks why they are taking the road they are on he says it has “better scenery.” She rejects that explanation and knowingly says that Max doesn’t understand beauty or anything that makes “life worth living,” because he is an “animal: coarse, lustful, barbaric,” another reference to Max’s uncivilized, predatory nature. She sees life through a cynical, pessimistic perspective and so she is attracted to the “bad boy,” and says he is “rock bottom.” It is, ironically, a comfort that she knows she can’t “sink any lower,” than to be with him. Max notes Sievers is following him. The rear window of Max’s car has one shoe dangling from it. Is this image a suggestion that we are waiting for Max to let the other shoe drop?
Sievers calls the police to report that Max is in a room with Taylor and they can arrest him for “lewd vagrancy,” something that would be considered an obsolete puritanical law today if consenting adults are involved. For the time, the following scene was quite daring as it depicts the bare-chested Max staring menacingly at Taylor in her scanty, black negligee. He forms a fist, and she knows he is ready to unleash his psychotic nature. She tries to escape, but he grabs her. The movie only suggests the violence as we hear her getting hit behind a slatted door. Mitchum’s role here mirrors the one he played in The Night of the Hunter, with both of these male characters drawn to women’s sexuality, while at the same time harboring misogynistic, abusive impulses. When the police arrive, they find the beaten Taylor alone as Max left through a back door. Taylor refuses to say anything to the police or Sievers, and she calls for a cab to take her to the bus station, hoping to escape, even though she doubts that she can. Sievers asks her to prevent Max from adding more names to his list of casualties, but she says that nobody “can protect themselves from a man like that.” She says that Max said that what he inflicted this time was “only a sample” of what might come next, which is Max’s way of making sure she doesn’t press charges. She knows once released he will come looking for her. Her impression paints Max as a man who sees himself as not being subject to the norms of decent behavior.
Sam arrives on the scene, and even though Sievers told her about the threat to Sam’s family, she tells him she is “sorry.” She leaves because she is not willing to take the personal risk to stand up to the man who will continue to cause harm to others. Sievers advises Sam to go even further outside the bounds of regular legal channels by hiring a man known to inflict violence for a price. Sievers suggests that with a man such as Max, one must deal with him on his own, brutal level. Sam dismisses the idea as he doesn’t want to approach that deep dark place in which Max resides.
Max shows up at the dock where Sam’s family is taking care of their boat. Both mother and father leave Nancy for a bit to get some supplies. Bad idea, given that they know about Max being around. Sam sees Max staring down at his daughter and warns him to go away. Max says that his daughter is getting to be as “juicy” as Sam's wife. His words have sexual and food connotations, which fits Max being an animal on the prowl. Max may be trying to provoke Sam, possibly so he can lodge an assault charge against him. Unfortunately, Sam accommodates him by taking a couple of swings at Max, who makes sure those there saw that he didn’t lay a hand on Sam. He does warn Sam that his turn will come, which builds the story’s suspense.
The sense of danger increases as Nancy is alone in a car (why do her parents keep leaving her by herself?). She sees the ever-present Max approaching. He is like a pervasive evil entity. She runs off but can’t get into a locked building. She then enters a school as she sees Max following her (a place of innocence being desecrated?). She hears footsteps that she believes come from Max, but instead are caused by an employee. The audience shares her fear since we don’t see who is walking at first. Again, what should be safe feels threatening now. Nancy runs out of the school and, ironically, into the arms of Max, another image of the inability to escape. She runs into the street and gets knocked down by a braking car, but is only bruised. Max’s wish to instill terror is succeeding.
Back home, the incensed Sam grabs his revolver and sets off after Max. Peggy tries to rein him in by saying how Max didn’t hurt Nancy and if Sam shot the man it would be murder, which would ruin the family, the very thing Sam wants to protect and which Max is trying to destroy. She pleads that he should offer Max money instead. She threatens to call the police to stop her husband. After Sam gets in his car, she follows through with her warning. But Sam, succumbing to Peggy’s logic, comes back in before she talks with Chief Dutton.
Sam decides to take Peggy’s advice and has a meeting at a restaurant to offer Max some cash. When asked to come up with a figure, Max says that eight years in prison added to the value of a family brings a high price. When Sam offers twenty thousand dollars, Max says that’s less than three thousand a year for his incarcerated time. He sarcastically asks Sam if he’s heard of the minimum wage. Max tells Sam that he lost his family because his wife couldn’t stand the humiliation of him being in prison, and she left with their son. After getting divorced, she married a “plumber,” and they had children. Max complains that his son doesn’t know who his father is. The cruel Max then basically kidnapped his ex-wife and made her write a letter with “dirty words” in it saying she wanted to be with Max for a while. He implies that he sexually assaulted her and physically abused the woman, but he threatened to give the letter to her husband if she pressed charges. Sam sees that the man is out for revenge, not compensation. Max says that he just wanted to kill “someone” (he is careful not to make a direct threat) for seven years in jail but in the last year he decided it would be more painful to exact retribution in small increments. Sam gets up and calls Max a “shocking degenerate” and the “lowest” of all the people he has encountered. Here he is echoing Taylor who called Max the “rock bottom.” Sam says that it makes him “sick to breathe the same air” as Max, implying the man is a plague infecting the human species.
Sam tells Peggy that Max is after their child, and how it will be difficult to protect her all the time. If he attacked Nancy, she would be forced to testify in detail at her young age at what would be a rape trial (although the word “rape” is not used, the implication is that would be the charge). Sam says that Max would be convicted but not after the damage to Nancy was done. Sam says Max knows that Sam and Peggy wouldn't put their child through that ordeal.
Sam concludes his only recourse is to step outside of the law, which ironically is his job to uphold. He decides to do what Sievers suggested about hiring thugs to hurt Max. The next scene has three men beating Max. But Max is one tough fellow and he is able to overpower his attackers, although he does sustain injuries. After the confrontation, the bruised and bloodied Max calls Sam’s house and Peggy answers. Max is sexually suggestive as he talks to Peggy and when Sam grabs the phone, Max says he will essentially destroy Sam’s life by turning the law against Sam for ordering the assault. Then he is frightening as he says that he has plans for Peggy and Nancy that make what he did to his wife look like “kid’s stuff.” His words not only stress the extreme nature of his threat but also the defilement of innocence by evil.
The next scene has Peggy astonished because Sam has obviously been talking about killing Max. Sam tries to reassure her that he will need help and will not proceed until all the details of a plan are in order. The option that he presents argues that the “terror” that Nancy will experience if Max attacks her is worse than if they involve her in the plot. The short scene shows how far Sam is willing to abandon legal options.
Attorney Grafton confronts Sam at the courthouse telling him one of the hospitalized thugs admitted that Sam hired him. Grafton says Sam’s career as a lawyer is over and will be arrested. Sam seeks aid from Chief Dutton, who is angry, given what Sam has done, that Sam would ask for help to have a stakeout to catch Max. Sam says there is a houseboat on the Cape Fear River, and he will have Peggy and Nancy there as bait. Grafton wants Sam to appear before a committee in Atlanta. Sam says he knows Max will see him leave and it will give him an opportunity to go after the wife and daughter. Sam will drive back. He wants one policeman to be at the dock to back him up and Nancy will be hidden in an obscure cabin nearby. He frankly tells Dutton he will shoot Max to protect his family. Dutton grudgingly agrees to the stakeout, but warns Sam he can’t kill Max just for trespassing. Sam is walking a legal tightrope here as he sets his trap.
Herrmann’s score at this point sounds similar to the heavy stresses that he used for Psycho as the story heads toward its climax. Max can pass for normal as he pretends to be asking about delivering a package to Sam at the airport. He confirms that Sam was on the plane to Atlanta and verifies the date of his return. On the houseboat, Nancy is alert as she hears the engine of another boat approaching. Peggy has a gun as she checks out who is coming. The sound of water sloshing followed by footsteps increases the tension. But director Thompson is pulling a Hitchcock move by faking a threat as it is Sam and Deputy Kersek (Page Slattery) who have arrived. The result is to ratchet up suspense and then offer relief only to be followed by more fear, similar to waves crashing and abating on a beach. Sam intends to join Kersek at an observation point at the water’s edge. Sam first calls Sievers who says that Max was at Sam’s house and confirmed that Sam’s car was there, but Peggy’s wasn’t. Sievers says Max tailed him, but then he didn’t see Max anymore. There is a plot question here as to why Max would have to track Sievers instead of just following Sam and his family as they first arrived at the houseboat.
Sievers heads out to the houseboat pretending to deliver a phonograph to the family. He and Sam hope Max will follow, but Sievers doesn’t see him. Max is clever enough not to use his own car and instead hitches a ride. He observes Sievers’s actions and discovers the houseboat. Sam decides to proceed as planned and he and Kersek go into hiding. There is dissembling by both parties here and each wants to capture the other. Max swims in the river like a water snake. He hears Kersek swat a mosquito, surprises the man, and drowns him. He says to him that he will be found without a mark on him, as if Kersek died in an unmanly fashion. Max sets the houseboat adrift to make it more difficult for anybody to get on the craft. Sam finds Kersek’s body and tells his daughter to phone for help.
he bare-chested Max, stripped of civilized behavior, goes onboard the houseboat to confront Peggy. He squishes some eggs and coats her upper body with the liquid in a sexually suggestive image. He says she will say what happened was consensual, as he forced his ex-wife to do, because she feared Max might go after her daughter. He then begins to manhandle her as Sam gets on the boat with a gun. He finds his wife but she has not been raped because Peggy says Max only wanted to lure Sam away from Nancy. Max escaped through a hatch in the boat to go after the girl.
Max breaks the window of the door at the cabin as Nancy cowers in a corner. She grabs a fireplace poker but is too shaken to use it against the powerful man who then drags her away. Sam swims back to the shore but Max surprises him, and the gun Sam was carrying is knocked away. The two men fight, and it appears that Max has drowned Sam. But Sam is also capable of faking appearances. He grabs a rock from the waterbed and smashes it against Max's head. He finds Nancy and tells her to run and hide. Sam goes back for Max, but the man has recovered and has a hunk of wood with a large screw in it that he uses as a weapon. Sam hides and then finds the gun. As Max attacks he gets off a shot wounding Max. Max tells him to finish him off because he doesn’t “give a damn.” Sam uses Max’s own words against him as he says killing him would be too easy. Instead, because he is “strong,” he will be in a cage for the rest of his long life until he “rots.” In a way, for a predatory animal such as Max, that punishment is worse. Sam’s decision also shows that he has returned to using legal instead of vigilante justice.
The family sails away from Cape Fear, but the traumatized look on their faces shows that the horror of the place will reside inside them as they attempt to resume their outwardly peaceful lives.
The next film is Gaslight.