Published in 1958 with the title The Executioners, Cape Fear is a book that has twice been adapted into feature films (and once into an episode of the The Simpsons). I’ve not seen the original 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, so today I’m comparing the book with Martin Scorese’s 1991 thriller starring Robert De Niro.
Fourteen years previously, Sam Bowden testified against fellow serviceman Max Cady after witnessing him brutally attack and rape a young girl. When Cady is released Sam soon realises that while he was progressing his career as a lawyer and building a family, Cady was nursing a deadly grudge. Veiled threats quickly escalate into violence and Sam must take action to protect his wife and three children, including his teenage daughter.
I personally find 1950’s literature tough going. There’s something about the language that I just don’t get and I’ve never read a book from this era that I really click with. ‘Oh golly, I’m in mortal danger’. Coupled with this, I did find the plot to be quite slow. There’s a lot of hand-wringing and discussion and not a great deal of action which means that the suspense that is built is somewhat diluted. Cady is largely kept to the shadows and while this is intended to make him more sinister, I found that this didn’t always work.
The film makes a few tweaks to the plot and places Cady more at the forefront of the action. The main difference was Sam and Cady’s relationship. Sam was not a witness, he was Cady’s defence lawyer and he deliberately hid evidence which led to Cady’s conviction. The interesting thing about this was that it was morally agreeable (Sam hid that the girl Cady raped was ‘promiscuous’ – something that should have no place in a rape trail anyway), if not legally the correct thing to do. This change makes Cady’s rage at Sam and self-moralising make more sense contextually. It also serves to show how intelligent Cady is, as he represented himself at later trials having discovered what Sam did.
Further, the film makes a change to Sam’s family, focussing on one child instead of three so you get to know her better, and therefore feel the threat against her more keenly.
The film is not perfect. Like the book, it’s somewhat dated. The editing on it is so jarring and very ’90s to the point where it’s a bit distracting. However, it does have a strong cast in Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte and Juliette Lewis, which makes up for this a good deal.
I definitely feel like I’m missing a trick with not having seen the first adaptation. The plot is closer to that of the book and I think that Robert Mitchum would play the role in a more understated way than the almost over-the-top psychotic De Niro version.
Have you read Cape Fear or seen any of the adaptations? What did you think of them?