“Unpleasant but suspenseful film noir.”

director: J. Lee Thompson; screenwriters: from the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald/James R. Webb; cinematographer: Samuel Leavitt; editor: George Tomasini; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Police Chief Mark Dutton), Jack Kruschen (Attorney Dave Grafton), Telly Savalas (Private Detective Charles Sievers), Barrie Chase (Diane Taylor); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sy Bartlett; Universal-International; 1962)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This unpleasant but suspenseful film noir is helmed with a steady hand by J. Lee Thompson (“10 to Midnight”/”The Chairman”) and is based on the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald. James R. Webb hands in a chillingly taut screenplay that plays on the terror a family man faces while trying to protect himself, his wife and teenage daughter.

After serving in Baltimore an eight-year prison term for a vicious rape and assault, psychopath Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is set free, evidently without parole (which boggles my mind), and heads straight for a rural small-town in Georgia (filmed near Savannah) to confront and terrorize family man and well-regarded lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). Max seeks revenge against Sam because he was the key witness at the trial that sent him away.

After stalking them and harassed by strong-armed tactics by the police under Sam’s good friend, the chief of police, Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam), the court intervenes on the side of the stalker and Sam learns his establishment credentials can’t stop Max from contacting him until he breaks the law–just being intimidating and sinister is evidently not enough of a cause for the authorities to act. For further protection Sam hires private detective Charles Sievers (Telly Savalas). But the shocks continue (such as the Bowden family dog being poisoned and Max making gestures to harm the child). When Sam can’t get Max to leave town, even after bribing him with an offer of $20,000, he decides to trap the dangerous ex-con by hiding Peggy and Nancy in his river houseboat on Cape Fear. He anticipates Max coming after them, and thereby getting the ex-con caught in the act of breaking the law that will send the monster back to prison for life.

The picture shows the flaws in the judicial system by exposing how such a menace to society is able to circumvent the law and use it to make life unbearable for the good citizen. It frighteningly shows how inadequate the law is and that the citizen has to resort to violence as the only sure means of protecting himself and his family.

The moody score by Bernard Herrmann effectively sets the tense mood. Mitchum’s swaggering incarnation of evil role, a carryover from his Night of the Hunter role, plays well as a balance to the frightened but stalwart Peck role as the protector of the family at all costs–signifying at its most trivial the righteous bourgeois credo.

Martin Scorsese remade it in 1991.