“Cape Fear” is a psychological thriller starring Robert Mitchum as ex-convict, Max Cady, looking for revenge against the man who put him in prison eight years before for rape. Gregory Peck plays Sam Bowden Cady’s target. But Cady’s real targets are Bowden’s wife Peggy and daughter Nancy.
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Cady shows up in the small southern town where Sam lives and begins threatening his family in a veiled way. Sam is an attorney and a friend of the town sheriff Mark Dutton played by Martin Balsam. Dutton agrees to investigate Cady but the clever psychopath has carefully planned his campaign in a way that makes him immune to the local law enforcement. He has a lawyer in tow who threatens the police with a harassment suit if they continue rousting him for flimsy charges.
But when his family dog is poisoned, Sam begins to panic. He tries to buy Cady off with a $20,000 payoff but Cady explicitly tells him that what he wants is to attack Peggy and Nancy. There are several incidents where Cady stalks the Bowdens and at one point Sam attacks Cady but he isn’t goaded into fighting back.
Sam pays a private detective to follow Cady looking for him to commit something criminal by which to force him to leave. And he does do something heinous. He takes up with a woman he meets at a bar and at a hotel that they go to for a sexual tryst Cady ends up brutally beating and sexually abusing her. When the police, and Sam show up at the hotel the woman refuses to press charges. She says that even if Cady goes to jail for ten years, she fears that when he got out, he would kill her.
Now desperate, Sam pays three thugs to beat Cady into a state where he would leave on his own. Instead, Cady beats the three men till they needed hospitalization and one of them confesses that Sam paid them. Cady’s lawyer reports Sam to the Bar Association for criminal behavior.
With no possibility of the sheriff for help, Sam thinks up a plan to trap Cady using his wife and daughter as bait. He pretends to go to Atlanta to answer charges before the Bar Association while he sends his family to a remote location on the Cape Fear River on a houseboat. But in reality, he arrives shortly after the family along with a deputy sheriff that agrees to help him guard the family from Cady.
Cady follows the private detective who was meant to lure him into the trap. But Cady is too clever for the trappers and he manages to drown the deputy sheriff and by the time Sam has discovered this, Cady has menaced Peggy and abducted Nancy. Sam arrives just in time to save Nancy but Cady knocks the gun out of Sam’s hand and then almost drowns him before Sam turns the tables and strikes Cady in the head with a rock. Sam has time to get Nancy to run away before Cady returns with a club to finish him off. At the last second Sam recovers his gun and shoots Cady. Badly wounded Cady tells him, “Finish it. I don’t care.” But Sam taunts him with the news that instead of a clean death Cady would be locked up like an animal for the rest of his life for the murder he committed. The movie ends with the Bowdon family leaving Cape Fear on a police launch headed for home.
This movie is a tour de force by Mitchum. The rest of the cast is satisfactory but the picture belongs to him. Watching his portrayal, I could easily believe that he actually was a degenerate criminal in real life. He’s just that convincing. Mitchum’s portrayal and the sense of helplessness that his plan instils in the Bowdens provides the audience with an atmosphere fraught with menace. The movie provides effective thrills and a villain that everyone can love to hate. Highly recommended for fans of suspense films.