Film / Cape Fear

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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.
  • Ax-Crazy: Max Cady.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Bowdens are traumatized by the events of the story but survive, while Cady goes back to prison for life (1962 original) or drowns in the river (1991 remake).
  • The Film of the Book: The novel was written by John D. MacDonald.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Cape Fear.
  • Rage Against the Legal System: Cady's vendetta against Bowden is because he was responsible for putting him in jail; he was a key witness in the 1962 version, and in the remake he decided, justifiably to sabotage Max's defence. Cady, however, harbors no malice towards the prosecutor or the judge as he reasoned they were just doing their jobs, and his wrath is solely targeted at Bowden for screwing him over.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Cady was given a length prison sentence for raping a woman.
  • Remake Cameo: Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum both play supporting roles in the remake. Martin Balsam, who played a police chief in the original, also has a small cameo in the remake.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum
  • Society Marches On: Today, stalking laws would go a long way to hinder someone like Cady. Rape laws now ban the use of the victims' sexual history in court.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Max Cady.


The 1991 remake contains examples of:

  • Amoral Attorney: Gregory Peck's cameo as Cady's lawyer. Bowden intentionally sabotaging Cady's defence, on the other hand was actually done out of morality.
  • As the Good Book Says: Cady is a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian and often quotes the Bible with wide-eyed furor.
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: When Sam sees the bodies of Kersek and the maid, he loses it and totally messes up the crime scene including touching the murder weapon (gun).
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: Kersek's favourite drink is Jim Beam mixed with Pepto Bismol.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Black vs a very, very light shade of grey. Generally what happens when an overall good man with anger issues and who partook in an affair is up against a rapist. Despite his other transgressions, sabotaging the latter's defense to punish him and prevent further crimes was a clear altruistic action.
  • Blasphemous Boast:
  • Bookends: The movie begins with chilling music and a blood-red negative shot of a on the daughter's eyes zooming out into a positive shot of her giving a speech. The final scene inverts this, starting with a positive shot of her monologing An Aesop and zooming in on her eyes, turning the shot into a b/w and then red negative.
  • Buy Them Off: Bowden offers Cady $10,000 in cash to leave him alone. He doesn't take it.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The piano wire, the gun, and the lighter fuel. Also, Cady's handcuffs.
  • Composite Character: Robert De Niro's Cady combines the original with another famous villain played by Robert Mitchum; Sinister Minister Harry Powell.
  • Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are
  • Date Rape: Cady's encounter with Lori ends up this way.
  • Exiled to the Couch: Presented as a Gilligan Cut. After a quarrel with his wife about his infidelity, Sam invokes their team work. Zoom upon his wife's face. Cut. Sam with a blanket on the couch.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Cady.
  • Feet-First Introduction: Used for the introduction of the latin maid.
  • 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 inadmissible in rape cases.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: From an illiterate rube rapist to a buff, law-degree-holding, Dangerously Genre Savvy homicidal bastard with a liking for teenage girls.
  • The Fundamentalist: Cady and Heller (Cady's attorney)
  • Genius Bruiser: Cady is both in exceptionally good shape and terrifyingly smart. He studied law in prison, becoming a lawyer, even acting as his own defense during his appeals, so he knew when and how to harass the Bowdens.
  • Gray and Black Morality: In contrast to the Black and White Morality of the original. This version of Bowden had an affair (the consequences of it were still being felt by the family, including having been forced to move away) and performed an illegal (even disbarring-worthy) act by holding back Cady's victim's sexual history, but he still is a good guy next to the brutal monster that is Cady.
  • Hellhole Prison: Cady doesn't stop telling Sam all about it.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Cady attempted and failed to invoke this with Sam. The worst he got out of him was violent aggression, which was a result of his natural instinct to protect his family.
  • 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.
  • Jump Scare: One of them happens when the phone rings during dinner. Actually, the ringer was loud...
  • Large Ham: De Niro, in fine form. It's taken Up to Eleven after Cady is set on fire.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Prisons Are Gymnasiums: Cady leaves prison well-shaped.
  • Prison Rape: Cady's quip about "being a woman" and getting in touch with his own "soft, nurturing side, his feminine side" when Sam Bowden tried to buy him off.
  • Professional Wrestling: There wasn't any of it in the movie, but WWE based the short lived Waylon Mercy character on De Niro's portrayal of Cady, and over a decade later Bray Wyatt.
  • Remake Cameo: The remake featured cameos by Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, the hero and antagonist (respectively) of the original. Also, Martin Balsam, who played the sympathetic cop role in the original, plays a judge in the remake.
  • Revenge: Cady's lust for revenge against Bowden fuels the plot and hits a lot of Revenge Tropes.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Cady's MO is to brutalize and/or kill people close to Bowden to teach him the meaning of loss.
  • Revenge Through Corruption: Cady gets his hooks in Bowden's daughter, almost seducing her, but she eventually sees him for the monster he is. Likewise, he never got what he truly wanted out of Sam, as he was killed in self-defense. Brought up by Cady in discussion with Sam about how his Prison Rape past could be properly retaliated.
  • Tattooed Crook: Max Cady.
  • 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 is probably the most parodied element of the film.
  • Villain Has a Point: Cady is technically correct when he points out that Bowden violated his legal and ethical duty as a defense attorney by burying important evidence that may have secured his client's acquittal. Hence he bears no grudge against the judge or the prosecutor, who were just doing their jobs correctly. Only technically though, since this leads more to the condemnation of such a warped law than to Cady's justification.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: While it was unprofessional for Bowden to withhold evidence from the trial, it didn't excuse the fact that Cady had actually performed a rape so brutal that 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 - so much so that it is now inadmissable as evidence.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The movie makes a point that Cady educated himself in prison, and acted as his own lawyer. His vendetta against Bowden is due to his discovering that Bowden suppressed evidence that the girl he raped was promiscuous, which may have gotten him a lighter sentence or even had the case dismissed. The question of exactly how he learned Bowden suppressed this goes unanswered. Acting as his own attorney, he would have gotten access to trial notes and evidence, but where exactly would he learn of this? Bowden would not have been stupid enough to record that evidence in his own notes, as it coming out during a post-trial investigation or retrial would have gotten him definitely disbarred and probably facing criminal charges. Even if he did put it in his notes (which would have been insane to do) and Cady requested the case file as part of his appeal, no legal secretary is going to send anything to anyone without the lawyer who handled the case reviewing the file first. This evidence would not have been recorded or even sought out by the prosecution, as it would only hurt their case, so Cady would not have learned of it from their files. The only way Bowden could have suppressed it is by talking to the girl or her associates, learning of her promiscuity, and saying nothing and not recording it. The only way it makes sense for Cady to have found out is for him to have spoken with the same people that Bowden interviewed and learning from them that they informed Bowden of the girls promiscuity, but that's a stretch. As a convicted felon in prison acting as his own attorney, he would have had no supoena or summoning ability and talking to witnesses would have been nearly impossible, unless he requested they visit him and learned the facts just by talking to them. Possible, but just barely.

The 1962 film contains examples of:

  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Diane Taylor, who pays for it heavily.
  • Ambulance Chaser: Cady's lawyer.
    • Amoral Attorney: He is actually worse in the original film, as it becomes clear that he has a history of twisting the truth and taking advantage of human rights violation fears to accuse police of brutality at the slightest whim and trying to completely exonerate his scumbag clients. When Bowden asked him how he knew about the police watching his house, he shut up, knowing that this would implicate that his client was stalking them.
  • As You Know: Sam Bowden's plan to deal with Cady is helpfully exposited by his wife.
  • 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.
  • Blood from the Mouth
  • 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.
  • Deliberately Monochrome
  • Disproportionate Retribution
  • 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.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Cady smokes Evil Cigars.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: When Cady attacks the girl at the hotel, her frantic grab at the door just pulls it shut, leaving only a narrow crack for the camera to see through.
  • Ironic Echo: Cady mentions that when he "visited" his ex-wife, she tried to hit him with a poker. Nancy later attempts to hold Cady off with a poker the same way.
  • Jungles Sound Like Kookaburras: A kookaburra sound appears during the third act of the film, along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, USA. Given that a kookaburra sound is usually assumed to be a monkey, note that there are neither kookaburras nor monkeys native to the American South.
  • Man in White: Cady.
  • 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 wife 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.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Savalas' character hires three thugs to deal one out to Cady. It turns out to be a case of Mugging the Monster.
  • Private Detective: Telly Savalas.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Bowden gives one to Cady after finally catching him at gunpoint.
    Cady: Go ahead. I just don't give a damn.
    Bowden: No. No! That would be letting you off too easy, too fast. Your words - do you remember? Well I do. No, we're gonna take good care of you. We're gonna nurse you back to health. And you're strong, Cady. You're gonna live a long life... in a cage! That's where you belong and that's where you're going. And this time for life! Bang your head against the walls. Count the years - the months - the hours... until the day you rot!
  • Rules Lawyer: As in To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck plays one of these. He still manages to be the good guy.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Diane Taylor.
  • Shirtless Scene: Cady has several, all played for the same kind of menace as a Full-Frontal Assault.
  • Smug Snake: Mitchum, to a T. That relaxed drawl of his is terrifying.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Bowden decides life in prison is better than death for Cady.
  • Tranquil Fury: Mitchum has this quiet but insistent animal terror underlying everything he does.

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