If you want to split hairs, you may wish to call me a dirty liar after reading today's entry.
You see, I swore I'd only write about horror things for the next several days, and I'm about to discuss the original Cape Fear, a movie that's pretty much a straight, by-the-book, decidedly un-phantasmagorical thriller.
But just 'cos it's not a horror movie (in the strict sense, at least) doesn't mean it ain't scary as hell.
I've been watching all manner of horror films for the last week or two, in anticipation of my unholy Blog-a-Day deal with the Devil. But of all of the chillers I've screened lately, none features a character that puts as much of a bolt-upright chill through my spine as Max Cady, the antagonist played by the late, great Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear. Between Cady and Preacher Harry Powell in the classic Night of the Hunter, Mitchum created two of the most terrifying human monsters in cinema history.
Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), an upright southern attorney, receives a visit from Cady, a recently-paroled ex-con. Bowden, you see, gave testimony that put Max in jail for eight years. This being a movie entitled Cape Fear and not, say, Quiet Days in a Carolina Town, you can pretty much bank on Cady taking some sort of vengeful action against the perceived thief of his freedom.
So Cape Fear, on the face of it, is just a formula thriller, but it's a textbook perfect one. The script very gradually and plausibly lays the groundwork of Cady's revenge plot, starting things out on a relatively tame level and exponentially ratcheting up the urgency and danger. It helps that all of the characters act like thinking humans, and not stock pieces on a cinematic gameboard. The whole setup, orchestrated with clockwork precision by director J. Lee Thompson, feels utterly believable, seamless, and wincingly inevitable.
Thompson and screenwriter James R. Webb manage to maintain the hat trick of giving Bowden's relationship with his wife and daughter considerable depth and genuineness with relatively little exposition and screen time. And the performances, top to bottom, shine. But Robert Mitchum's mind-blowing work provides Cape Fear's malignant and unforgettable core. The legendary tough guy's performance is an absolute wonder of nature, using the slightest of facial and vocal modulations to capture the moments when Cady's lazy demeanor snaps into lethal precision. He is, quite simply and effortlessly, one of the most unpredictably frightening and loathsome characters ever to menace an on-screen innocent.
Max Cady knows that you'll let your guard down around him; his sleepy-eyed mug provides the perfect camouflage for a ferociously sharp mind and a bottomless well of vindictive hatred. He's the ambling, lazily charming dog who never lets on that he's about to rip your throat out.