Gregory Peck is so linked in my mind to the simplicity and grace of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, that it is always surprising to see him in anything else. To find him in the gritty, dirty piece of film noir that is the original Cape Fear is something of a shock. Yet, as always he does a marvelous job, and some of that grace manages to shine through the grime.
The story is a pretty basic noir plot. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is an ex convict who just got out of prison. He has come back to town to haunt Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) who testified against Cady for attacking a woman. Cady has spent his time in prison well, and has studied up on the law. He manages to terrify Bowden and his family and still remain within the confines of the law.
Though Peck gets top billing, this is truly Robert Mitchum’s film. He plays Cady with a swagger and menacing smile that is simply magnificent. We can see inside his swarthy confident charm and see the evil, menacing psychopath. The brilliance of the role is that we almost never see the violence that hides just behind the mask. Yet it seethes and oozes out, ready to strike at any time.
J. Lee Thompson keeps the tension pumping throughout the 105 minute film. There is hardly a moment to relax before something else occurs to tense us right back up. Yet the tension doesn’t come from boogie men jumping out from behind closets. It is a slow, boiling tension that tightens as we imagine just what might happen. When the climax finally does occur it is almost a let down. The censor at the time would not allow the type of action packed blood bath it does now, but the film doesn’t suffer for it. What we get is plenty good, but is in the nature of the genre that the climax leads to the come down. But, the ride getting to that point, is well worth the time.