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Film / Cape Fear

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Cape Fear is a 1962 thriller film directed by J. Lee Thompson, based on the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald.

It tells the story of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a Georgia lawyer whose family is threatened by a convicted rapist who's been released from prison. Said rapist, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), wants vengeance on Bowden — who'd interrupted Cady's attack — for providing the testimony that helped to convict him. After a lengthy game of cat and mouse between the two, Bowden takes his wife (Polly Bergen) and teenaged daughter (Lori Martin) to their houseboat on Cape Fear in North Carolina, hoping to set a trap that will lead to Cady's re-imprisonment. Needless to say, this does not go as planned.

The film was successfully remade in 1991 by director Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro starring as Cady, Nick Nolte as Bowden, and Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis as Bowden's wife and daughter; De Niro and Lewis each 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, deliberately buried possibly-exculpatory evidence about the victim, leading to Cady's conviction. Both films use the music score Bernard Herrmann composed for the original.


Both films contain examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Bowden also has a son in the novel, who is non-existent in either film.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: In both versions, Max Cady kills the Bowdens' pet dog.
  • 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).
  • Blaming the Victim: Explored. Max Cady's rape and battery of a teenage girl appalls his attorney Sam Bowden, who willingly buries the girl's history of promiscuity because he knows it would help Cady get acquitted.
  • Buy Them Off: Bowden offers Cady $10,000 in cash to leave him alone. He doesn't take it, saying it doesn't even equate to minimum wage for all the years he spent in prison.
  • Date Rape: Cady's encounter with Diane Taylor (Lori Davis in the remake) ends up this way.
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  • Dented Iron: Despite his savagery, Cady is no superhuman monster. By the end of the final brawl with Bowden, his many injuries leave him too weak to stand and he eventually drowns when the surf washes him away.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The otherwise psychopathic and seemingly amoral Cady harbors absolutely no ill will towards the judge or prosecutor for putting him away. According to him, they, like law enforcement generally, were just doing their jobs. This is in contrast to his hatred for Bowden, who he blames for intentionally failing in his job as defense attorney.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Cady. He tries to present himself as a pleasant, well-educated southern gentleman (in the remake, he also has pretensions of being a Knight Templar who talks about justice and God), but it's clear that beneath that facade he is a sadistic rapist and murderer who only cares about revenge and refuses to admit that he deserved to be punished for his crimes, regardless of whether his lawyer could have gotten him off the hook or not.
  • The Film of the Book: The novel was written by John D. MacDonald.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Cape Fear.
  • Menacing Stroll: Cady, even when he's released from prison, even walking into the camera.
  • Mugging the Monster: The three goons that the Bowdens hire to attack Cady get this treatment. In the book, Sam Bowden and Charlie Sievers theorize that Cady's psychopathy actually helps him to utilize more of his strength than the average person.
  • Never My Fault: It seemingly never occurs to Cady that his prison sentence was his own doing or that Bowden might have had good reason to act the way he did in the remake.
  • 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 suggests using his family as bait. Bowden doesn't care for the implications.
  • Prisons Are Gymnasiums: Cady leaves prison well-shaped.
  • Private Detective: Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas) in the original, Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) in the remake.
  • 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 to sabotage Max's defense by sitting on favorable evidence. 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 lengthy prison sentence for raping a woman. In the original film it is implied that he also raped Diane Taylor at the hotel.
  • 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.
  • Revenge: Cady's lust for revenge against Bowden fuels the plot.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Cady's MO is to brutalize and/or kill people close to Bowden to teach him the meaning of loss.
    Cady: Rape for Rape. Wife for wife. And child for child.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Cady promises to spare the daughter if Bowden's wife will have sex with him. In the remake, the wife offers herself up as soon as Cady goes for the daughter.

The 1962 film contains examples of:

  • 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 portrays Max Cady as pure evil, with absolutely no legitimate reason to begrudge his conviction and Sam Bowden as perfectly virtuous and upright. The Bowdens also stay true to each other throughout the film, unlike in the remake.
  • Cool Hat: Cady's white Panama hat.
  • 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.
  • Defensive Failure: The daughter threatens Cady with a iron bar but he easily takes it out of her hands without any resistance.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Though most films were color in 1962, the film was shot in black and white probably to add to the menace of the film.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Unlike in the remake, Cady has no legitimate reason to begrudge his conviction in the original. His Rage Against the Legal System comes out of left field.
  • Establishing Character Moment: At the beginning of the film, Cady walks past a woman who drops something. He doesn't help her, doesn't even look at her, thus showing himself to be a jerk. And almost as soon as he begins speaking, he makes several lecherous comments to and about women, showing his predatory side.
  • 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.
  • Hand Gagging: Cady handgags the daughter when taking her out of the house in the final act.
  • 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.
  • Kick the Dog: Cady is walking up the stairs to the courtroom and brushes against woman carrying a file, causing her to drop the file. He neither excuses himself nor helps her pick up the file. Clearly introducing him as the worst kind of person.
  • 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.
  • Never My Fault: Cady wants revenge because Bowden got him convicted, and seems completely oblivious to the fact that he fully deserved it.
  • 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.
  • Playing Possum: Sam pretends to be dead or at least unconscious when Cady strangles him, enabling him to grab a rock and bash him on the head.
  • "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.

The 1991 remake contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Gregory Peck's character mentions Korea.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Bowden's wife and daughter's names are changed from Peggy & Nancy to Leigh & Danielle.
  • AM/FM Characterization: Danielle has posters of Jimi Hendrix, Megadeth, The Cure and Guns N' Roses and watches the video for Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing" while her parents argue.
  • 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.
  • Asshole Victim: The reason why Cady is out for Sam's blood is that the latter buried evidence that could have minimized Cady's sentence by 14 years. While Cady's grievance is legitimate and something he could legally punish Sam for by bringing him to court, he chose violent revenge instead.
    Sam: Just because she was promiscuous didn't give you the right to rape her! You bragged to me that you beat two prior aggravated rapes. You were a menace.
    Max: You were my lawyer! You were my lawyer, that report could have saved me fourteen years!
    Sam: You're probably right.
    Max: You self-righteous fuck!
  • 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.
    • Leigh and Danielle Bowden are also a little less squeaky clean than Peggy and Nancy were in the original film. The pressure of Cady's stalking causes Leigh to lash out at Sam in some scenes, and Danielle is portrayed as a troubled teenager who smokes pot and is perversely fascinated with Cady at first. However, when they realize how monstrous Cady truly is, both Leigh and Danielle help Sam to fight him in the climax.
  • Black Comedy: There's a scene that involves around accidentally slipping on a pool of blood.
  • Black Dude Dies First: The first person Cady kills in the film is Graciella, the Bowden's Hispanic housekeeper.
  • Blasphemous Boast:
  • Book Dumb: Cady was illiterate well into adulthood but proves himself to be extremely intelligent, training himself in the law enough to act as his own defense.
  • Bookends: The movie begins with chilling music and a blood-red negative shot on the daughter's eyes, zooming out into a positive shot of her giving a speech in class. 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.
  • Break the Cutie: Perky, upbeat Lori is brutally assaulted and raped by Cady.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The piano wire, the gun, and the lighter fuel. Also, Cady's handcuffs.
  • Cigar Chomper: Cady loves his cigars and is often seen puffing on one, usually in an incredibly obnoxious manner.
  • Composite Character: Robert De Niro's Cady combines the original with another famous villain played by Robert Mitchum; Sinister Minister Harry Powell.
    • Deputy Kersek and PI Charlie Sievers from the original are combined into a single character in the remake, taking Sievers’ role but Kersek’s name and death at the hands of Cady.
  • Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are: Cady says this word for word when looking for Bowden who hides behind a dumpster.
  • Combat Breakdown: Played very realistically. By the end of the final fight both men are staggering around, throwing weak punches and sluggishly trying to hit each other with rocks. Despite being much stronger than Bowden, eventually Cady's injuries catch up to him and he drowns in the surf when he's dragged under by sinking debris.
  • Death by Adaptation: Kersek. In the original the private detective survived, but here he doesn’t fare nearly as well thanks to being merged with a character who did die.
  • Disney Villain Death: The piece of boat Cady is cuffed to gets pulled back into the River by a wave and he eventually is dragged under to his doom.
  • Disrupting the Theater: One of the remake’s most famous scenes. Early in the film, Cady follows Sam and his family into a cinema and sits near them. He laughs obnoxiously throughout the showing while filling the room with cigar smoke, ruining the Bowden family’s experience.
  • 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.
  • Fan Disservice: Cady is in excellent shape and we get some scenes of him shirtless but the effect is more off-putting than anything else.
  • Feet-First Introduction: Used for the introduction of the Latin maid.
  • Forced to Watch: Cady disables Bowden at the boat and then the latter has to watch helplessly as Cady goes for his wife and daughter.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Bowden deliberately buried evidence which would have helped Cady's defense at trial, but it was because he knew that Cady was guilty and had previously got away with other rape cases.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: From an illiterate rube rapist to a buff, law-reading homicidal bastard with a liking for teenage girls.
  • The Fundamentalist: Cady and Heller (Cady's attorney, ironically played by Peck).
  • 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.
  • Girls Love Stuffed Animals: Danielle has a teddy bear on her bed.
  • Hellhole Prison: Cady doesn't stop telling Sam all about it. He claims to have been subjected to Prison Rape.
  • 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.
  • 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...
    • Another happens when Kersek is talking with the Bowden’s maid, and she turns around to reveal she is Cady, who had murdered the real nurse and taken her clothing to ambush Kersek.
  • Karmic Death: Cady constantly declares that in God’s eyes, he'll punish Bowden for betraying him and just before Bowden is about to kill Cady with a rock, a wave pulls Cady back into the River where he eventually sinks down to the bottom.
  • 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 signal flare didn't faze him, either. However it's established that Cady isn't invulnerable and his various injuries eventually catch up with him and incapacitate him.
  • Man on Fire: Danielle sprays Cady with lighter fluid while he lights a cigar, engulfing him in flames and causing him to jump off the boat to extinguish the fire.
  • Mood Whiplash: One minute, Lori is giddy and flirtatious, she's screaming in terror the next.
  • Never Learned to Read: Cady was illiterate well into adulthood and only learned while in prison. However he repeatedly shows that this doesn't mean he's stupid.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Bowden's decision to Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right! is what led to Cady to get his revenge on him.
  • 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).
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Cady at least tries to invoke this in his argument with Bowden, and is trying to bring Bowden to his level. The way Bowden snarls like a rabid animal while violently trying to beat Cady's brains out with a rock in the climax suggests he at least slightly succeeded. It's not like Bowden's anger is in any way misplaced.
    Cady: Now you will know how it feels like! Loss of freedom! Loss of humanity! Now you and I will truly be the same!
  • Obfuscating Disability: When the judge granted the restraining order against Bowden, Cady hobbled right out of court in crutches.
  • Obviously Evil: Unlike in the original version, a quick look at Cady's tattooed skin on this version reveals that he is a bad man.
  • Office Golf: Kersek is shortly seen golfing in his office.
  • 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.
  • Private Detective: Kersek.
  • Recycled Soundtrack:
    • The film reuses Bernard Herrmann's score from the original, albeit conducted by Elmer Bernstein.
    • The music that is heard at the climax of the movie was a piece of music that Herrmann had written for Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, but that piece of music was never used. Bernstein had always liked that original score and he asked Martin Scorsese if it could be used in Cape Fear.
  • Red Shirt: Graciella, the Bowden’s maid, gets very little characterization or screentime before Cady murders her.
  • 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 Is Not Justice: Max Cady wants revenge because his lawyer, Sam Bowden, buried evidence that could have saved Max 14 years in prison (where it's implied that he sexually assaulted there and he felt especially vulnerable due to his illiteracy). However, in the climax, it's revealed that the evidence that could have saved Max was that his victim was promiscuous, something Sam points out as ridiculous and evil. Max doesn't accept this and prepares to murder him for violating his oath as a lawyer.
    Sam: Just because she was promiscuous didn't give you the right to rape her! You bragged to me that you beat two prior aggravated rapes. You were a menace.
    Max: You were my lawyer! You were my lawyer, that report could have saved me fourteen years!
    Sam: You're probably right.
    Max: You self-righteous fuck!
  • 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.
    Cady at the climax: Now I sentence you, counselor! Now you will know how it feels like! Loss of freedom! Loss of humanity! Now you and I will truly be the same!
  • Sacrificial Lion: Kersek's death shows just how far Cady will go to have his revenge.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Bowden, as Cady's defense lawyer, had the sworn duty to give his client the best defense. The best defense would have involved adding additional humiliation on top of grievous injury to the poor woman Cady raped, by exposing her sexual history. Bowden decided "to hell with it" and half-assed his job, wishing Cady to go to jail.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Kersek is far less intimidating and badass than his thinks he is, and his attempt at intimidating Cady fails.
  • Übermensch: In-universe, Cady seems to fancy himself as one. Early in the film, he's caught reading Also sprach Zarathustra, which at first seems like an aside, but near the end he claims he wants to become "more than human", implying he took the book to heart.
  • Underside Ride: Max Cady ties himself to the bottom of 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 as Cady is a Hypocrite who truly doesn't care about the law and just uses it as a petty excuse to ignore his own crimes.
  • Villain Protagonist: Cady's actor in the remake is given top billing and the Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination he received was for "Best Actor." So, it can be viewed that Cady is the main focus of the film for the audience to follow from beginning to end besides also acting as the Big Bad, while Sam is a Supporting Protagonist who endures Cady's menace and realized how deeply motivated he is to achieve his revenge against him.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Cady pretty much loses it in the climax, screaming glossolalic gibberish and ranting about being "bound for the promised land" right before he drowns.