Maybe half of J. Lee Thompson’s shots in Cape Fear are good. Unfortunately, the other half aren’t mediocre, they’re bad. He’s given to iconic shots of Robert Mitchum, some of which make Cape Fear look like stills from an old Universal horror picture, with Mitchum as Frankenstein’s Monster. As a horror film–Mitchum’s Max Cady is an abomination–Cape Fear as some rather effective moments. But Thompson doesn’t play most of it as a straight horror film–the ending, with Mitchum loose, yes–but the beginning… Thompson thinks he can thoughtlessly ape other directors–the Welles Touch of Evil references are legion–and get the same cerebral result. He cannot.
And while Mitchum is fantastic as one of the more terrifying movie monsters, Gregory Peck is playing a superhero. The Great Stone Face. No matter what’s going on, Peck’s got one expression. No matter what’s going on, Peck’s voice has one tone. Eventually, his hair gets mussed up and it finally becomes clear he’s in a panic. Peck rarely gives emotional performances–though better directors certainly know how to make him come off human–but it’s absolutely essential in Cape Fear and he doesn’t cut it. As Peck’s wife, Polly Bergen is okay, certainly more expressive than Peck, but not much. Lori Martin is an able terrified teenager and the rest of the supporting cast, Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas and Barrie Chase, bring a lot to their scenes.
The film plods along–like most horror movies, there’s nothing to it once the viewer knows how it ends–to the blaring Bernard Herrmann score. The score’s way too much and a lot of Cape Fear feels like Universal trying to make a studio thriller post-Psycho (down to using the same set as Mother’s house). They fail, thanks to Thompson, thanks to Peck. What they do get is Mitchum acting really well, which is he did most of the time, and in far better films.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson; screenplay by James R. Webb, based on a novel by John D. MacDonald; director of photography, Sam Leavitt; edited by George Tomasini; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Sy Bartlett; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Police Chief Mark Dutton), Jack Kruschen (Attorney Dave Grafton), Telly Savalas (Private Detective Charles Sievers), Barrie Chase (Diane Taylor), Paul Comi (George Garner), John McKee (Officer Marconi) and Page Slattery (Deputy Kersek).