As a forthright exercise in cumulative terror Cape Fear is a competent and visually polished entry.
Taken from John D. MacDonald’s magazine-serialized novel, The Executioners, the screeplay deals with the scheme of a sadistic ex-convict (Robert Mitchum) to gain revenge against a smalltown Georgia lawyer (Gregory Peck), his wife and daughter. Peck, it seems, had testified against him eight years earlier for the savage assault on a woman in a parking lot.
Mitchum’s menacing omnipresence causes the family much mental anguish. Their pet dog is poisoned, the daughter has a harrowing encounter with the degenerate, and there is the culminating terror in Georgia swampland.
What ails Mitchum obviously requires violent sexual expression – the women he takes have to be clobbered as well as violated. But in the undiluted flow of evil, there is nothing in the script or J. Lee Thompson’s direction which might provide audiences with some insight into Mitchum’s behavior.
Peck, displaying his typical guarded self, is effective, if perhaps less distraught over the prospect of personal disaster than his character might warrant. Granting the shallowness of his motivation, Mitchum has no trouble being utterly hateful. Wearing a Panama fedora and chomping a cocky cigar, the menace of his visage has the hiss of a poised snake. Polly Bergen, breaking an eight-year screen absence, turns in a sympathetic job as Peck’s wife.