Simpsons did it. To address the elephant in the room (hi Stampy!) it is, of course, hard to take J. Lee Thompson’s classic thriller quite so seriously these days, for fear of Sideshow Bob flashbacks upon Cape Feare. Push it from your mind if you can though, for Cape Fear remains as tense and compelling viewing as it ever was, no matter how many of its shocks may have been replayed and redone for years since.
Unlike the Simpsons clan or the dysfunctional bickering monsters of Martin Scorsese’s remake (which, in turn, inspired the Sideshow Bob spoof), Lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) and his family (Polly Bergen and Lori Martin) are a wholesome lot, unfairly victimised by the ex-convict (Robert Mitchum) he helped put away. Stalked by a vengeful Max Cady and besieged at all fronts, the Bowdens and their trusty Private Dick (Telly Savalas) take off in the family houseboat, concocting a plan to take the man down… if he doesn’t get to them first, that is.
Controversial in its time for its surprising brutality and not shying away from depicting Cady as a predator, with a predilection for underage girls, Cape Fear has aged well in the years since its release. Unlike the remake, it doesn’t need to turn Cady into an unstoppable Jason Voorhees type figure; Mitchum’s genial dapper menace is, in his own way, more terrifying than DeNiro’s scenery-gobbling brutalist ever was. Like his preacher in Night of the Hunter, Mitchum is a compelling and charismatic villain – not a man whom one would want to cross, but with good taste in debonair hats. His cheery nastiness is a fine foil to Gregory Peck’s sturdy hero routine, and a genuine threat to the terrified wife and child (naturally for a film of this vintage, the female characters have little to do but whimper and be chased with the occasional game of table tennis thrown in too, for good mention). This is a classic battle of wits, a game of cat and mouse between hero and villain, old fashioned but feeling surprisingly modern at the same time.
No conversation about Cape Fear being complete without a mention of that theme – a score which resonates even today, even in spite of Sideshow Bob’s nonsense. The Simpsons did it funnier and Scorsese turned Cape Fear into a lurid horror film, but, as is so often the case, the original is king.
CAPE FEAR (1962) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: J. LEE THOMPSON / SCREENPLAY: JAMES R. WEBB / STARRING: GREGORY PECK, ROBERT MITCHUM, POLLY BERGEN, LORI MARTIN, TELLY SAVALAS / RELEASE DATE: 28TH MARCH