Cape Fear (1962 film)

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Cape Fear
Cape fear1960s.jpg
Film poster
Directed byJ. Lee Thompson
Screenplay byJames R. Webb
Based onThe Executioners
by John D. MacDonald
Produced bySy Bartlett
StarringGregory Peck
Robert Mitchum
Polly Bergen
Lori Martin
Martin Balsam
Jack Kruschen
Telly Savalas
Barrie Chase
CinematographySam Leavitt
Edited byGeorge Tomasini
Music byBernard Herrmann
Melville Productions
Talbot Productions
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • April 12, 1962 (1962-04-12) (Miami, Florida)
  • May 28, 1962 (1962-05-28) (United States)
Running time
106 minutes
CountryUnited States

Cape Fear is a 1962 American noir psychological thriller film starring Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Polly Bergen. It was adapted by James R. Webb from the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. It was directed by J. Lee Thompson and released on April 12, 1962. The film concerns an attorney whose family is stalked by a criminal he helped to send to jail.

Cape Fear was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese. Peck, Mitchum, and Martin Balsam all appeared in the remake.[1]


In Southeast Georgia in 1962, after spending eight years in prison for rape, Max Cady is released. He promptly tracks down Sam Bowden, a lawyer whom he holds personally responsible for his conviction because Sam interrupted his attack and testified against him. Cady begins to stalk and subtly threaten Bowden's family. He kills the Bowden family dog, though Sam cannot prove Cady did it. A friend of Bowden, Police Chief Mark Dutton, attempts to intervene on Bowden's behalf, but he cannot prove Cady guilty of any crime.

Bowden hires private detective Charlie Sievers. Cady brutally rapes a young woman, Diane Taylor, when he brings her home, but neither the private eye nor Bowden can persuade her to testify. Bowden hires three men to beat up Cady and coerce him to leave town, but the plan backfires when Cady gets the better of all three. Cady's lawyer vows to have Bowden disbarred.

Afraid for his wife Peggy and 14-year-old daughter Nancy, Bowden takes them to their houseboat in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In an attempt to trick Cady, Bowden makes it seem as though he has gone to Atlanta. He fully expects Cady to follow his wife and daughter, and he plans on killing Cady to end the battle. On a dark night, Bowden and local deputy Kersek hide in the swamp nearby, but Cady realizes that Kersek is there and drowns him, leaving no evidence of a struggle. Eluding Bowden and setting the houseboat adrift down current, Cady first attacks Mrs. Bowden on the boat, causing Bowden to go to her rescue. Meanwhile, Cady swims back to shore to attack Nancy. Bowden realizes what has happened, and also swims ashore.

The two men engage in a final fight on the riverbank. Bowden manages to reach his gun, which he had dropped, and shoots Cady, wounding and disabling him. Cady tells Bowden, "Finish the job," but Bowden decides to do the thing that Cady earlier told him would be unbearable – put him in prison for the rest of his life, to "count the years, the months, the hours." In the morning light, the Bowden family are together on a boat, traveling with police back to port.


In addition, Edward Platt, the future "Chief" on the television series Get Smart, and November 1958 Playboy Playmate centerfold Joan Staley make brief appearances as a judge and a waitress, respectively.


Cornel Wilde acquired the rights to John D. MacDonald's novel The Executioners for $30,000 in 1958.[2] Gregory Peck had his own production company, Melville Productions, in partnership with Sy Bartlett, which had made The Big Country and Pork Chop Hill and they later purchased the rights. They planned to make it after The Guns of Navarone. Peck was impressed by J. Lee Thompson's work on that film and hired him for Cape Fear.[3] Peck said his goal was to make "first class professional entertainment intelligently done."[4]


Rod Steiger wanted to play Max Cady, but he backed off when he heard Mitchum was considering the role.[citation needed] Telly Savalas was screentested for the role, but later played private eye Charlie Sievers.[5]

Thompson wanted Hayley Mills, whom he had cast in Tiger Bay, to play the daughter, but Mills was unavailable.

Polly Bergen signed in December 1960. It was her first film in eight years.[6]


Thompson had always envisioned the film in black and white prior to production. As an Alfred Hitchcock fan, he wanted to have Hitchcockian elements in the film, such as unusual lighting angles, an eerie musical score, closeups, and subtle hints rather than graphic depictions of the violence Cady has in mind for the family.

The outdoor scenes were filmed on location in Savannah, Georgia; Stockton, California; and the Universal Studios backlot at Universal City, California. The indoor scenes were done at Universal Studios Soundstage. Mitchum had a real-life aversion to Savannah, where as a teenager, he had been charged with vagrancy and put on a chain gang. This resulted in a number of the outdoor scenes being shot at Ladd's Marina in Stockton, including the culminating conflict on the houseboat at the end of the movie.

The scene in which Mitchum attacks Polly Bergen's character on the houseboat was almost completely improvised.[citation needed] Before the scene was filmed, Thompson suddenly told a crew member: "Bring me a dish of eggs!" Mitchum's rubbing the eggs on Bergen was not scripted and Bergen's reactions were real. She also suffered back injuries from being knocked around so much. She felt the impact of the "attack" for days.[7] While filming the scene, Mitchum cut open his hand, leading Bergen to recall: "his hand was covered in blood, my back was covered in blood. We just kept going, caught up in the scene. They came over and physically stopped us."[8]

In the source novel The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald, Cady was a soldier court-martialed and convicted on then Lieutenant Bowden's testimony for the brutal rape of a 14-year-old girl. The censors stepped in, banned the use of the word "rape", and stated that depicting Cady as a soldier reflected adversely on U.S. military personnel.[citation needed]


Bernard Herrmann, as often in his scores, uses a reduced version of the symphony orchestra. Here, other than a 46-piece string section (slightly larger than usual for film scores), he adds four flutes (doubling on two piccolos, two alto flutes in G, and two bass flutes in C) and eight French horns. No use is made of further wind instruments or percussion.[9]

In his 2002 book A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, Stephen C. Smith writes:

"Yet Herrmann was perfect for Cape Fear ... Herrmann's score reinforces Cape Fear's savagery. Mainly a synthesis of past devices, its power comes from their imaginative application and another ingenious orchestration ... a rehearsal for his similar orchestration on Hitchcock's Torn Curtain in 1966. Like similar "psychological" Herrmann scores, dissonant string combinations suggest the workings of a killer's mind (most startlingly in a queasy device for cello and bass viols as Cadey prepares to attack the prostitute). Hermann's prelude searingly establishes the dramatic conflict: descending and ascending chromatic voices move slowly towards each other from their opposite registers, finally crossing–just as Bodens and Cadey's [sic] game of cat-and-mouse will end in deadly confrontation."[10]


Although the word "rape" was entirely removed from the script before shooting, the film still enraged the censors, who worried that "there was a continuous threat of sexual assault on a child." To accept the film, British censors required extensive editing and deleting of specific scenes.[11]

After making around 6 minutes of cuts, the film still nearly garnered a British X rating (meaning at the time, "Suitable for those aged 18 and older", not necessarily meaning there was sexually explicit or violent content).[citation needed][12] Thompson said he had to make 161 cuts; the censor argued it was fifteen main cuts but admitted they took 5 minutes. The censor said this was primarily because the film involved threat of sexual assault against a child.[13]

Home media[edit]

Cape Fear was first made available on VHS on March 1, 1992. It was later re-released on VHS, as well as DVD, on September 18, 2001. The film was released onto Blu-ray on January 8, 2013. It contains production photos and a "making-of" featurette.[14]


Critical response[edit]

Upon its release, the film received positive but cautious feedback from critics due to the film's content. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 96% of 23 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.8 out of 10.[15]

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised the "tough, tight script", as well as the film's "steady and starkly sinister style." He went on to conclude his review by saying, "this is really one of those shockers that provokes disgust and regret."[16] The entertainment-trade magazine Variety reviewed the film as "competent and visually polished", while commenting on Mitchum's performance as a "menacing omnipresence."[17]


Although it makes no acknowledgement of Cape Fear, the episode "The Force of Evil" from the 1977 NBC television series Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected uses virtually the same plot, merely introducing an additional supernatural element to the released prisoner.[18][19]

The film and its remake serve as the basis for the 1993 The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare" in which Sideshow Bob, recently released from prison, stalks the Simpson family in an attempt to kill Bart.

In April 2007, Newsweek selected Cady as one of the 10 best villains in cinema history. Specifically, the scene where Cady attacks Sam's family was ranked number 36 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments in 2004.[20]

A consumer poll on the Internet Movie Database rates Cape Fear as the 65th-best trial film, although the trial scenes are merely incidental to the plot.[21]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kirsten Thompson, Cape Fear and Trembling: Familial Dread; In Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, Edited by Robert Stam, Alessandra Raengo, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0631230556 (pp.126-147)
  2. ^ "New York Soundtrack". Variety. March 26, 1958. p. 7. Retrieved October 10, 2021 – via
  3. ^ PECK'S FILM FIRM PLANS 3 PROJECTS: Star and Sy Bartlett List 2 Comedies and Drama -- 'Apartment' Here Today By HOWARD THOMPSON. New York Times 15 June 1960: 50.
  4. ^ Peck Wants to Make Film Classic: PECK FILM Hyams, Joe. Los Angeles Times 15 Apr 1961: A6.
  5. ^ p.283 Chibnall, Steve J. Lee Thompson Manchester University Press, 2000
  6. ^ GABLE'S LAST FILM SLATED HERE FEB.1: 'Misfits' Is Due at Capitol -- 3 Other Premieres Set -- Hudson, Doris Day Cited By HOWARD THOMPSON. New York Times 31 Dec 1960: 10.
  7. ^ Robert Mitchum The Reluctant Star (DVD). Harrington Park: Janson Media. 2009.
  8. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "Cape Fear". Starring Robert Mitchum. Turner Entertainment Networks. Retrieved 29 October 2013.
  9. ^ Bill Wrobel: Cape Fear, score rundown analysis
  10. ^ Smith, Steven C. (May 31, 2002). A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann - Steven C. Smith - Google Books. p. 252. ISBN 0-520-22939-8. Retrieved March 14, 2016.
  11. ^ Why Cape Fear can't go on Author: Cecil Wilson Date: Thursday, May 3, 1962 Publication: Daily Mail p 6
  12. ^ Film chief censors Our 'Erb Author: Barry Norman Date: Wednesday, June 13, 1962 Publication: Daily Mail p 3
  13. ^ Why we cut Cape Fear—by the film censors Author: Barry Norman Date: Friday, June 22, 1962 Publication: Daily Mail p 3
  14. ^ Seller, Ryan (12 October 2012). "Cape Fear (1962) Blu-ray". Retrieved 14 October 2012.
  15. ^ "Cape Fear – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 14, 2020.
  16. ^ Crowther, Bosley (19 April 1962). "Screen: Pitiless Shocker:Mitchum Stalks Peck in 'Cape Fear'". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 October 2012.
  17. ^ "Cape Fear". Variety. 1962. Retrieved 14 October 2012.
  18. ^ John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV: CULT TV FLASHBACK # 54: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977)
  19. ^ Muir, John Kenneth, Terror Television: American Series 1970-1999, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001. ISBN 978-0-7864-3884-6. Not paginated.
  20. ^ "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments". Archived from the original on 30 October 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2012.
  21. ^ "Best trial movies" at Internet Movie Database.
  22. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  23. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 20 August 2016.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]