Directed By: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen
Tag line: "Their ordeal of terror triggers the screen's most savage war of nerves!"
Trivia: The financial failure of Cape Fear ended Gregory Peck's company, Melville Productions
When Cape Fear was still in its planning stages, star Gregory Peck went to director J. Lee Thompson and expressed concern that the character he'd be playing, a reserved attorney whose family is threatened by a psychotic stalker, might be dull, and in danger of being upstaged by the stalker himself. This comment was made prior to the casting of that pivotal role, and one can only imagine how Peck felt when he learned Robert Mitchum would be his nemesis.
At that point, Peck must have pretty much known it was “Game Over”. From start to finish, Cape Fear belongs to Robert Mitchum.
Max Cady (Mitchum) has just been released from prison, where he'd served eight years for assault and rape. With the bitter memory of his time behind bars gnawing at him, Cady starts shadowing attorney Sam Bowden (Peck), the man who acted as the prosecution’s key witness against him eight years earlier. Bowden, who has a beautiful young wife (Polly Bergen) and teenage daughter (Lori Martin), fears the worst, and goes to great lengths to have Cady locked away for good. But it won't be easy, seeing as Cady’s making damn sure he goes no further in his torment of Bowden than the law allows, and not even the local police Chief (Martin Balsam) or a determined private investigator (Telly Savalas) are able to get the goods on Cady. Nearly out of options, Bowden makes one last, desperate attempt to save his family, a move that might end in disaster for them all.
As played by Mitchum, Max Cady is the most dangerous type of stalker there is; a hardened criminal who used his time behind bars to study up on the law. Early on, Cady follows Bowden and his family to a bowling alley, telling Bowden he just wanted to “get a look” at his wife and daughter. This prompts Bowden’s first trip to the police, seeking protection. But Cady hasn’t actually broken any laws, nor said anything that would signify he intends to harm anyone. With the authorities offering little to no help, and Cady breathing down his neck at every turn, Bowden starts to unravel, while Cady remains, at all times, in perfect control.
Director John Huston, who worked with Mitchum on 1957's Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, once called the actor “a rarity…hard-working, noncomplaining, amazingly receptive”. In Cape Fear, he puts all of these attributes to good use, while throwing in an extra dose of strength, and more than a hint of menace, for good measure.