One of the great and many tragedies of the modernisation of Hollywood is that household names are hard to come by. Those few who break through with affordable, entertaining films are not just breadwinners, but beacons of quality. Director J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone was never such a man, but he should have been. His work here on Cape Fear is nothing short of excellent, with a compelling piece detailing just how far one man will go to enact revenge. It is the traditional tale of an unjust man clashing heads with the voice of reason that crossed them in the past.
Immediately noticeable is the composition from Bernard Herrmann. Cape Fear opens with notes of truly chilling, cutting noise. It is the ominous orchestra that opens up the film, the streets of Southeast Georgia have never looked so terrifying. It is here where we are introduced to Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), the intensely deranged convict out for revenge. He channels much of the tone and brooding energy he offered in Night of the Hunter, but here he plays a savage through and through. His convincing nature as a character and human being is carried across, yet both men are beyond the pale and far from salvation. Mitchum is experienced with this style of villainy, Cape Fear merely taps into it at the right times.
He spars well with Gregory Peck; their first confrontation is immediate and sudden. It tells us everything we could possibly need to know about these characters. Cady is the charismatic horror show, wading through life looking for one solitary act of revenge. Sam Bowden (Peck) is the Councillor with the idealistic life. The happy family, nice home and flash car. This is not something Cady wishes he had himself, but something he hates to see owned by a man he detests. Jealousy is nothing to do with how Cady feels, it is a spark of anger for losing nearly a decade of his life. He terrorises the Bowden family, within the realm of a law-abiding villain. He can manoeuvre around the red tape, the impact of his stalking a clear and immediate impact on the day-to-day life of Sam and his nuclear family.
Exceptionally fun Cape Fear is, the sad inevitability of it is a remake or recounting. One that would, effectively, remove the power Thompson had. Both versions of the film are stellar, the edge will always go to Scorsese, even if Thompson has crafted a truly rewarding experience. While the star power of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese has overtaken that of Thompson and his fine efforts here, that does more to prove my point than anything. It is not the Thompson edition of Cape Fear that many remember, it is the Scorsese twist and twinge of violence found in his rendition of the same story. His finely tuned efforts are starkly different to the faster pacing found in this 60s classic, but there is no substitute for the rewarding performances Mitchum and Peck offer. Cape Fear edges its way through on merits of directing styles of the modern era, but the Thompson classic offers up stronger, engaging performances that capture the feeling of the early sixties.