J. Lee Thompson's 1962 version of Cape Fear may not be a masterpiece, but in everyway it's a superior thriller to Martin Scorsese's horribly misjudged remake. More surprisingly, it's also much nastier even with the heavier censorship of the day - Robert Mitchum's treatment of Polly Bergen in the last reel is startlingly violent and disturbing even now and its still shocking to see an early 60s film that revolves around sex crimes. There's no doubt exactly what's on Mitchum's mind, whether he's eyeing up a pickup in a bar or breaking an egg in his fist and smearing the yolk over the mother's shoulders and neck: like a lazy reptile waiting to casually catch a fly with his tongue, he merely has to look at Gregory Peck's underage daughter to exude menace. Where the remake offered a dysfunctional family forced to come together, the original offers something much more anarchic, as Gregory Peck's Mr Civil Liberties gradually comes to realize that the only way to protect his All-American family from Mitchum's strutting lizard-like vengeful ex-con is play dirty himself and plan his murder using his own daughter as bait. He may be playing another small-town southern lawyer, but he's is as far way from Atticus Finch as Mitchum's seedy, cocky but thoroughly self-aware Max Cady is from his self-deluding self-righteous `preacher' Harry Powell.
While Mitchum and Peck occupy centre-stage, James Webb's tight script ensures the supporting cast make a strong impression too as they usher Peck further down the path to murder: Martin Balsam's sympathetic police chief who'll bend the law a little to harass an ex-con for a solid citizen, Telly Savalas (with hair) as a pragmatic private eye who is not above calling in as little help from the wrong side of tracks and Jack Kruschen, not playing Jewish for a change, as Cady's mouthpiece who knows just how to use the law to protect the guilty. Aided immensely by Samuel Leavitt's menacing black and white photography and Bernard Herrmann's dramatically sinister score, Thompson's direction is right on target throughout: he may not have been one of the great directors, but he knew how to tell a story without losing the characters along the way, and he's at the top of his game here. It may not be quite a classic, but it is a strikingly effective thriller, albeit an undeniably nasty one.
Unusually for a film of the period, this boasts a surprisingly excellent DVD, with a good widescreen black and white transfer and plenty of extras, from a half hour documentary (though sadly only Thompson and Peck contribute, with Mitchum notably absent), production notes, a well-designed stills montage and the original theatrical trailer. Aside from the production notes these are carried over to the region-free US Blu-ray but have all been excluded from the UK and European Blu-ray release.