Cape Fear is a 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson. It tells the story of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a lawyer whose family is threatened by a convicted rapist. The rapist, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), wants vengeance for having been imprisoned on Bowden's testimony after the latter witnessed him attempting to rape a woman. After a lengthy game of cat and mouse between the two, Bowden takes his family to their houseboat on Cape Fear, hoping to set a trap for Cady that will lead to his re-imprisonment. Needless to say, this does not go as planned.The film was remade in 1991 by director Martin Scorsese, with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro portraying Bowden and Cady. De Niro and Juliette Lewis received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for their performances. In this version, Cady is out to get Bowden because the latter, while defending Cady on a rape charge, allowed possibly-exculpatory evidence about the victim to remain secret, leading to Cady's conviction.
Both films contain examples of:
Adult Fear: Rape in both versions, moral corruption (Cady seducing Danielle and basically trying to get Sam to kill him) in the remake.
Rage Against The Legal System: Cady's vendetta against Bowden is because he was responsible to put him in jail (because he was a key witness in the 1962 version, and because he decided (somewhat justifiably morally, if not legally) to commit some slip-ups on the defence in the remake).
Forgotten Trope: Viewers can be somewhat mystified by the premise for why antagonist Max Cady (Robert De Niro) felt slighted by protagonist Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). At the time of release, the prior sexual history of a rape victim was a valid defense that would have lessened Cady's sentence, or might have even kept him out of jail. Nowadays, prior sexual history is inadmissable in rape cases.
He Who Fights Monsters: In the end this was what Cady was counting on Sam to do, whether he succeeded in hurting his family or not. To make it even more scary, we see Sam growling and snarling at Cady when he fights him.
Human Notepad: Cady has lines from the bible tattooed all over his body.
Improv: Robert De Niro and Illeana Douglas's (Sam's collegue) scenes were improvised.
Ironic Echo: In a meta-sense; where Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum played the upstanding lawyer and the sadistic rapist in the original, their cameo roles in the remake essentially place them on the opposite sides, with Mitchum playing a police detective sympathetic to Bowden's plight and Peck playing Cady's attorney.
Peck stated in an interview that he was offered a few different roles to make a cameo as, and immediately asked for the least sympathetic one.
Jerkass Has a Point: Though a wholly unpleasant character, Cady does have a point about Sam, who violated his professional and ethical duty as a defense attorney by burying crucial evidence which may have earned his client a lesser sentence or even acquittal.
Jump Scare: One of them happens when the phone rings during dinner. Actually, the ringer was loud...
Made of Iron: Max gets beaten on for quite a while by some thugs, but as soon as he gets a weapon away from one of them, he takes them all down with ease. Later, Danielle throws some boiling water in his face, and he doesn't even blink. Grasping a lit roman candle didn't faze him, either.
Menacing Stroll: Cady, even when he's released from prison, even walking into the camera.
Mood Whiplash: One minute, Lori (Bowden's friend, may have been an ex-lover) is giddy and flirtatious, she's screaming in terror the next.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Bowden should have never consented to the thugs beating Cady up. That only made Cady go off the rails.
Noodle Incident: Both Bowdens' past infidelities, requiring therapy and forcing them to move. Leigh suspected Lori and Sam were having an affair, thus explaining some phone conversation in hushed tones (actually, he was checking on her after Cady attacked her).
Obfuscating Disability: When the judge granted the restraining order against Bowden, Cady hobbled right out of court in crutches.
Office Golf: Kersek is shortly seen golfing in his office.
Police Are Useless: When Bowden suspects that Cady is stalking him, the first thing he does is go to the police, but they can't do anything because they lack any evidence of wrongdoing. The one helpful cop (played by Robert Mitchum) suggests using his family as bait. Bowden doesn't care for the implications.
Underside Ride: Max Cady ties himself to the bottom Sam Bowden's car, causing the Bowden family to take him directly to the houseboat. This probably the most parodied element of the film.
Well-Intentioned Extremist: While it was highly unprofessional for Bowden to withhold evidence from the trial, it didn't excuse the fact that Cady had actually performed a brutal rape so Bowden felt Cady needed to serve the maximum sentence. Bowden defiantly points this out to Cady during the final confrontation. The nature of the evidence—the rape victim's sexual history—also helps with this, "shaming the victim" in such a sense being a particularly controversial defence in rape trials.
Black and White Morality: The original film portrayed Robert Mitchum as pure evil, with absolutely no legitimate reason to begrudge his conviction and Gregory Peck as perfectly virtuous, not deserving of any retribution.
Cruel Mercy: Sam is in a position where he could easily kill Cady and get away with it, justifying it as being in fear for his life and that of his family. He instead lets him live, explaining in great detail how much Cady will enjoy his inevitable life sentence, being forced to wait for death in the prison he hated so much.
Getting Crap Past the Radar: Despite the overwhelming theme of sexual violence, the word "rape" is never used, nor does the dialogue get explicit. The closest the script comes is "attacked". This last case is fully justified, as the parents are discussing the possibility of Cady going after their daughter, and their tone makes it clear that they are consciously using a euphemism because they are trying to avoid thinking about their daughter getting raped.
Never My Fault: Cady wants revenge because Bowden got him convicted, and seems completely oblivious to the fact that he fully deserved it. Also had this reaction when his life left him; not only was it cruel and unfair to him, but she only left him because Sam testified and got him in prison, not because he was caught raping someone.