1962’s Cape Fear was much more straightforward than Night of the Hunter (see previous post.) It started as a vehicle for Gregory Peck, but Peck realized that the real star would be whoever played the heavy, Max Cady. He got Robert Mitchum, who was physically imposing and could scare the crap out of you with a look.
Most people now know the Martin Scorcese remake with Robert DeNiro better, but I think the original was much more scary. Mitchum’s Cady is mean but can also be charming. When he tells a woman in a bar to get rid of her boyfriend and meet him in an hour you know she will do it. Then she will regret it when Cady’s mood shifts and his habit of beating women surfaces.
Cady plays with the law, never doing anything that will allow Peck’s upright lawyer to have him arrested, but still clearly planning something very bad. The way he looks at the teenage daughter of Peck’s character is a threat in itself.
If you only know the Scorcese Cape Fear do yourself a favor and rent the original.