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Max Cady is a fictional character and the primary antagonist in the John D. MacDonald novel The Executioners. The character was portrayed by Robert Mitchum in the 1962 film adaptation Cape Fear and by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of the same name.
In both film versions of MacDonald's novel, Cady is a criminal with an obsessive grudge against an attorney named Sam Bowden (played by Gregory Peck in the first film and by Nick Nolte in the remake) who sent him to prison for rape. While in prison, Cady teaches himself to read as he nurtures his hatred of Bowden, made especially intense when his wife divorces him and takes their child. Upon his release, he terrorizes Bowden and his family, stalking his wife at their house and attempting to seduce Bowden's teenage daughter. After Bowden's failed attempts to get rid of Cady with bribery and a restraining order, he hires street thugs to rough Cady up, which only succeeds in making him angrier and more determined to make sure Bowden "learns all about loss." Cady tracks the family to its summer home in the titular North Carolina beach town of Cape Fear and nearly kills them all. In the climax of the first film, Bowden puts Cady under citizen's arrest; in the second, Cady apparently drowns after a fight with Bowden.
Differences between novel and films
There are significant differences between the way in which Cady is portrayed in the first and second film. Mitchum's characterization is that of a sleazy, degenerate con artist. De Niro's is of a homicidal sociopath who viciously attacks everything and everyone Bowden holds dear (he even beats and rapes one of Bowden's colleagues). The remake also sheds some light on Cady's background in a rural Pentecostal family who exposed themselves to venomous snakebites and drank strychnine in order to achieve religious ecstasy. Also in the 1991 remake, De Niro's character is shown to have a well-muscled physique and a great many tattoos, including several biblical quotations. This brings more development to Cady's motives. In the remake, Cady not only wants revenge, but he feels like he is actually helping Bowden by doing these terrible things, motivated to do so by God. Strangely enough, Cady is very religious in the remake.
There are also many differences in the films' portrayal of Cady and Bowden's relationship. In the first film, Bowden merely testified against Cady in court. In the remake, Bowden was Cady's attorney who deliberately suppressed evidence which may have lightened Cady's sentence or granted him an acquittal. This made Cady furious, as he knew that his own lawyer should be trying to help him, and contributed to more of a rage inside Cady during his sentence. Most notably, Cady's fate differs in the two films. In the 1962 version, Bowden manages to grab his revolver and shoot Cady in the leg during a fight between the two men. Rather than finish him off, Bowden spares Cady so he will be forced to spend the rest of his life in jail.
In the remake, Bowden is able to handcuff Cady's ankle to a railing in the houseboat before it hits submerged rocks and begins to break apart. The two exchange blows with rocks, and Bowden savagely attempts to bring a large rock down on Cady's head. But before he can do so, Cady is washed out into the river, still cuffed to part of the houseboat, madly crying out and speaking in tongues, and Bowden then watches as Cady is pulled to the bottom of the river and drowns.
- Mitchum's portrayal of Cady ranks number 28 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 50 movie villains of all time.
- Cady was parodied in a 1993 episode of The Simpsons entitled "Cape Feare", in which Sideshow Bob stalks the Simpson family to a Florida beach town in order to get revenge on Bart.
- De Niro's portrayal of Cady was the inspiration for professional wrestler Dan Spivey's Waylon Mercy character.
- Windham Rotunda, another professional wrestler, portrays a character named Bray Wyatt, who is also loosely modeled after De Niro's version of the character.
- In Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Sherman Klump, and Denise enter a movie house to watch the original Cape Fear only to see Buddy Love smoking and laughing in a front row, similar to Max Cady in the remake.