Cape Fear – 1962 – 1991

Cape Fear – 1962 – 1991

Much like the original 1932 Scarface (reviewed earlier here), the original 1962 Cape Fear is an innovative classic which has become subsequently overshadowed by a big-budget Hollywood remake. In both cases, the remakes are excellent films in their own right, but have the unfortunate effect of relegating their predecessors to somewhat forgotten-relic status. After reviewing Scarface last week, I thought a side-by-side review of both version of Cape Fear might be of some interest. So here goes…


Director: J. Lee Thompson

The original Cape Fear had humble beginnings as an adaption of John MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners. The story is by now pretty well-known. Max Cady, a dangerous and violent criminal (in this case, also a solider on leave), is convicted of the rape of a 14 year old girl. The man who witnessed the attack and got Cady sent down was fellow soldier Max Boden. After his release from prison, Cady begins a campaign of tormenting and terrorising Boden in revenge for what he did to him, to which Boden takes increasingly extreme measures to try and safeguard his wife and children.

As a book, The Executioners is a competent, but in my opinion pretty unremarkable thriller novel. It’s still in print and available to buy (although current versions have re-titled it to match the films that followed) and is not a bad read. But it lacks a certain x-factor and darkness which, as much as it tries, somewhat fails to achieve. The film version, however, took the base material and worked it into something much darker and memorable than MacDonald’s original.

The film cuts some of the fat from the novel – reducing Boden’s number of children from three to one single daughter, removes the background whereby Boden and Cady were fellow soldiers, and also reduces the use of the word ‘rape’ to a fat number of zero. The censors opposed usage of the word, and so the film was left to apply a creative twist to language to get the meaning across.  In the film, the threat from Cady is also much darker. In the book, he is out for blood, pure and simple. Stalking his family, shooting his children, Cady’s aim is clear – murder and destruction for Boden and his family. The film expands this to make Boden’s daughter the object of Cady’s lust. In spite of the censors, the film portrays Cady as a ruthless rapist and makes no qualms about doing so. Rubbing raw eggs on a woman’s breasts, picking up women in bars, and referring to Boden’s daughter as being “almost as juicy as your wife” to his face were all pretty bold steps for 1962.



Cady is played by noir stalwart Robert Mitchum (known for earlier works such as Out of the Past and Crossfire) in one of his most menacing roles, and Sam Boden is played by To Kill a Mockingbird star Gregory Peck. Both actors bring a lot to their roles and the chemistry between them is superb. A scene between the two men where Mitchum’s character calmly explains what he through about during prison, how much he wants to gradually rip Boden’s life apart before going on to explain how he raped his ex-wife immediately upon his release from prison has to go down as one of my very favourite movie scenes.

The film gets it title from the end showdown, where Boden lures Cady to his family’s houseboat retreat at Cape Fear, and is a masterful example of how to build tension and character development throughout a film to a powerful climax.

The film is well-scripted, well-directed, and Robert Mitchum gives one of his best performances. It is memorable on every account. Shot in black and white at a time when the noir genre (if you call it that) was pretty much at its end, it is one of the defining films of the era. The supporting cast is strong and there are no duff scenes. It’s a psychological thriller, and a superb example of the format. Tension is built masterfully throughout the running time, with Boden becoming increasingly irrational and desperate to try and save his family, in the full knowledge of what Cady is capable of. It throws up a question of how far a man can go to get revenge, and how far another man should go to defend himself in the face of it. Between clever dialogue, a haunting musical score and Mitchum’s brilliant performance of a relentless and disturbed human being, it’s a stunning piece of work.

Fortunately, it is still widely available on DVD and blu-ray and for a very modest price. Even if you are more acquainted with the later version, you will be surprised how impressive a film the original is.


Director: Martin Scorsese

Fresh off the heels of 1990’s excellent Goodfellas, director Martin Scorsese swiftly moved on to a long-discussed remake of Cape Fear. Once again, Scorsese teamed up with star Robert DeNiro, n what would become their seventh collaboration together (followed by 1995’s superb Casino, which still remains their last work together, unless the much-delayed The Irishman project does get off the ground).

Given the renowned status of Scorsese and DeNiro (as well as an excellent Simpsons spoof episode involving Sideshow Bob), this version of the film has become the one perhaps most remembered by the public now. It’s certainly a good film and one that’s memorable.

This time around, DeNiro plays Max Cady, with Nick Nolte starring as Sam Boden. The relationship between the characters and the general set-up is the same, except that here, Sam Boden was not a witness to Cady’s crime but rather his defence attorney. Horrified at what Cady had done, Boden buried certain pieces of evidence which would have thrown doubt over the case (due to the victim being promiscuous, no less…) and instead managed to get Cady sentenced to 14 years inside. During that time, and unbeknownst to Boden, Cady spent that time brushing up on some law himself and finding out exactly what his attorney had been up to. Suffice to say, he has a few bones to pick upon his release.

The change in this background helps make the film less of a bog-standard remake of the original, and instead adds a new layer of complexity to the story and changes how black-and-white the morality difference between the characters is. Boden was, many would say, justified in the actions he took to get Cady sentenced, but the fact remains he was Cady’s own lawyer, and instead of doing the best by his client he betrays him. No matter how you look at it, Boden’s actions couldn’t be justified without undermining the system he represents. So we are forced to sympathise with Cady, despite his actions. Fortunately for any morally-confused viewers, Scorsese is quick to show us scenes which display Cady’s ruthlessness, including a particularly nasty rape scene involving Boden’s would-be mistress.

Scorsese also changes the nature of the Boden’s family relationship. Rather than the happy-go-lucky family unit portrayed in the original, this version of the family is less happy and looks ready to fracture at any time due to a combination of Boden’s past affairs and the problems of having a teenage daughter. Both of which Cady seeks to exploit.

As with Mitchum before him, it is DeNiro’s portrayal of Cady which is at the heart of the film. DeNiro certainly put a lot into it – he plays a muscular, tattooed vengeance machine who, in this version, is an outspoken, southern right-wing God-botherer,  who never passes up on an opportunity to spout a few lines out to justify his action.

As would be expected, this version of the film is a meaner, rougher and more extreme adaption of the film which came before it. But the essence of the film (down to the music) is the same. Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum even make cameo appearances themselves, which adds an extra air of legitimacy to Scorsese’s take.


1962 v 1991

Inevitably, the question is raised about which film is superior. The remake certainly has its moments, and DeNiro’s portrayal of a raging psychopath is commendable (especially when compared to his more restrained and calculated portrayal of Jimmy Conway in the previous year’s Goodfellas). It is a commendable thriller and the extra efforts to create moral ambiguity in the relationship between the two leads is a great example of how to do a remake which tries to add something to the original story, rather than just re-hash it cheaply. I also have to acknowledge the fact that, like many other people, the remake was the first version of the film I saw, and therefore has the benefit of being the first time I was exposed to the story.

However, the 1962 version edges it as the superior of the two. A dark, taunt thriller where you never quite know what will happen next, it creates a feeling of tension and sets a sinister atmosphere which is undeniably its own. In the 1991 version, you eagerly wait for Cady’s next appearance, since you can enjoy his character and DeNiro’s portrayal so much (despite the brutality of the character). With Mitchum, you dread him and everything he brings to the film. The dialogue is superb and the black-and-white aspect keeps the underlying darkness of the story present. It’s also commendable for the way it manages to keep Cady’s brutal intentions and plans of rape so clear and apparent, in spite of all the censors did to avoid it. It’s not necessarily a pleasant thing (you know, rape and all…) but being able to portray these ideas and motives to an audience despite restrictions on language and what could be shown is testament to the film’s brilliance.

If you’re familiar with the 1991 version, do yourself a favour and get the original. It took me a while to motivate myself to do so, but I was glad I did.




One thought on “Cape Fear – 1962 – 1991

  1. This is a well-written analysis.

    I haven’t seen the remake of Cape Fear yet, but I love the original. I didn’t like the original Scarface, but I love the remake.

    That’s a great insight about not using the word rape in the film.

    I tried reading the novel for Cape Fear, but it didn’t hold my interest.

    It is interesting how Sam Bowden is darkly influenced by Mx Cady and becomes capable of violence himself.

    I wrote a short essay (600 words) on Cape Fear called “The Self-Made Psychopath.” If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback:


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