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RCE Info


Cape Fear (1962)

Universal // Unrated // September 18, 2001
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Hughes | posted September 25, 2001 | E-mail the Author

Features: Widescreen anamorphic - 1.85:1. Audio Tracks English (Dolby Digital 2.0) Subtitles: English, Spanish, French. Featurette: The Making of Cape Fear. Production Stills with Score by Bernard Hermann. Cast Bios. Production notes. Stills gallery.

The Movie:
Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a successful prosecuting attorney with a lovely wife (Lori Martin as Nancy Bowden) and daughter (Polly Bergen as Peggy Bowden), a nice home and an idyllic life. Everything seems to be going well for Sam until a man he convicted of assault eight years earlier finishes his prison term and arrives in town. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is a wild eyed low life bent on revenge and he sets about stalking and terrorizing the Bowden family with frightening monomania. Sam enlists the help of Police Chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) to keep an eye on Cady but the ex-con continues his harassment. When Cady kills the Bowden family dog Sam decides to hire private detective Charles Sievers (Telly Savalas). Sievers tails the man but arrives too late after Cady assaults a young woman. Unfortunately the woman is so traumatized by the attack that she refuses to testify against Cady and his pursuit of the Bowden family continues. Will Cady carry out his hateful plot to ruin Sam or will Bowden find a way to repel his assailant before it's too late?

Cape Fear, based on John D. MacDonald's novel The Executioners, is considered by many to be a masterpiece of B movie filmmaking. It's a tense thriller filled with memorable set pieces, tight pacing and accomplished performances by the principal actors. Though it lacks the depth of works by Wells and Hitchcock, Cape Fear is a technical and stylistic masterpiece that is not without subtlety. In particular it is Robert Mitchum's brilliant portrayal of Max Cady that makes Cape Fear so good. Mitchum delivers in Max Cady one of the most memorable villains ever to grace the silver screen. Cady is a man who moves in only one direction; towards his goal. He's like a treacherous shark that must swim forward or die and whose pure evil is the perfect opposite to Peck's home spun Sam Bowden.

Cape Fear is in fact a stark morality play that pits unadulterated evil against righteousness and good. But Cape Fear doesn't offer these juxtaposed forces in plain black and white, rather we see the power of Cady's hatred begin to eat away at Bowden's worldview until the attorney begins adopt tactics against his adversary that he would never have considered in other circumstances. It is this interplay between the lead characters, this ambiguity that elevates Cape Fear to the level of established screen classic.

Director J. Lee Thompson surrounded himself with an accomplished crew including two figures that should be familiar to Hitchcock fans. First is film editor George Tomasini (North By Northwest, The Birds etc.) who's shot selection and solid pacing give the film a feel reminiscent of Psycho. Second, and perhaps most importantly, is composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo etc.) who wrote a chilling score that does much more than support the action. Herrmann's music seems to propel the characters forward and heighten the tension like no other composer could possibly have done. The result of all this talent is a crisp post-noir film that is gripping, frightening and unforgettable.

The Picture:
I first saw Cape Fear on the big screen in the early 80s and the print was more than a little battered. Later I saw it on television and the results weren't much better. For me this Universal release was something of a revelation. The film elements used in this transfer are almost completely free of flaws. There are no major instances of dirt or scratches, the image is rock solid and the film grain is very small. The transfer itself is fantastic. Black levels are deep with rich shadow detail and white levels are hot without burning out detail. Contrast is even across the entire range of grays and the overall picture is rich and beautiful to look at. Of particular note is a distinct lack of edge sharpening artifacts. In an age when overly aggressive edge sharpening is the norm it's nice to see a film that shows no signs of it whatsoever.

The Sound:
Cape Fear's mono soundtrack is in just as good condition as the video elements. The dynamic range is surprisingly wide (my subwoofer was definitely active from time to time) and the dialogue and music are clear as a bell. There is no perceptible hiss and no annoying pops.

The Extras:
Universal did another fantastic job with this special edition release. Extras abound and each of them adds to the enjoyment of the film. First up is a half hour documentary on the making of Cape Fear. The program includes interviews with Gregory Peck and J. Lee Thompson. The two men recount the writing, casting, shooting and editing of the film in great detail with plenty of interesting anecdotes thrown in. Next is a selection of still images that have been edited into a short video program. Entitled Production Photographs this section presents clips from the film, behind the scenes images, publicity materials and more set to excerpts from the score. Also included are the theatrical trailer (don't watch it before the film or you'll spoil most of the plot), a small collection of production notes, cast and crew bios and a handful of DVD ROM features.

Cape Fear is a 60's classic that remains as entertaining today as when it was released. Universal's presentation of the film is excellent both in terms of transfer and extras. Though it may not have the depth to sustain numerous re-viewings it should still make a welcome addition to the library of thriller fans. I give it my highest rating: DVD Talk Collector's Series.

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