Fear of rape is the central terror in Cape Fear (1962; dir. J. Lee Thompson). In jail for eight years because of the testimony of lawyer Sam Bowden, Max Cady seeks revenge through stalking, threats, and sexual violence against the lawyer’s family. Cady has no other motives, perhaps other than class resentment. (Of course, a psychopath doesn’t need motives). Bowden and family live in a stylish upper-class home. While he was in prison Cady’s wife divorced him and left with their daughter. He blames Bowden for all that has happened to him. He covets what Bowden possesses—happiness, a family, a beautiful wife and daughter. But he doesn’t want just to possess these things. He wants to destroy them, through what the film increasingly makes clear will be sexual violence, mainly against Bowden’s daughter.
In 1962, the concept of sexual violence against children, in this case a girl who appears to be twelve to fourteen years in age, would have been far more terrifying than it is today because at least today, when such violence is horrific enough, it is at least talked about. I can’t think of another film from this era that raises this fear as directly as this one. When Cady confronts the mother and her daughter late in the film, you feel their fear. In that regard the film hasn’t aged at all.
Given the historical context of the South and 1962, one can ponder the film’s underlying motives. No one questions that sexual violence—rape—is horrible. But was fear of rape in 1962 foremost in the Southern mind, even the national mind? Why would Southern white people fear the violence of a lower class white male against an upper class white male and his wife and child? Such violence is terrible enough that it can become the center of a suspenseful film. But why highlight it at this time?
A primary argument in the South against racial integration during the 1950s and 1960s was that it would bring the races together and make it easier for black men to harass, molest, and rape white women. The assumption (for those who thought in such paranoid racist terms) was that all black males wanted to do such things. What if a black man took Max Cady’s place? How much would the film change? There would be certain things a black Max Cady could not do in 1962 in the South. He could not come and go as easily as the white Max Cady. He probably would experience more interference from the police. Fear of rape was already exaggerated in the public mind. Does this film seize that fear and redirect it to Max Cady, a lower class white man? Is this film an expression of the fear of racial violence against white women by black men, all the result of integration? I must admit to doubting my own argument. If the film were simply a text, the product of a single writer, especially a Southern writer, it might make more sense to me. But the film is a product of many makers. It’s based on a novel by John D. McDonald novel, who was from Pennsylvania. The director J. Lee Thompson was from England. The screenwriter James R. Webb was from Colorado. So my speculation begins to fall apart.
Why isn’t Bowden given more protection against Cady? It’s difficult to believe that Cady could threaten a family in the way he threatens this one and get away with it. We’re told that he had read enough law in prison to understand how far he can carry his threats without breaking the law, and he’s careful not to go too far. But is he really that smart? Is there no legal recourse for the Bowdens? It’s equally difficult to believe that the police and a private detective would conspire with lawyer Bowden to plot Cady’s murder. Bowden completely compromises what one would assume (hope?) are his personal ethics: he first offers to pay Cady off if he will leave. What has he done to pay Cady off for—what crime, what lapse? This offer at the least raises questions about Bowden’s character. He further compromises himself when he hires three men to beat Cady up. When he schemes with a private detective to kill Cady, he seems completely lost.
In the end, Bowden and Cady fight one another in the North Carolina swamps. Bowden’s final decision not to shoot Cady, but instead to see him imprisoned for life, is supposed to indicate that he has, after all, retained civilized values, but this weakly redemptive moment seems unconvincing.
Although Cady rapes either Bowden’s wife or daughter, he certainly terrorizes them and one can imagine the psychological scars he leaves. Yet the person most damaged at the end of this film is Bowden. Are the measures he takes to protect his family justified? Straw Dogs (1971; dir. Sam Peckinpah), in which a mousy graduate student resorts to savage methods to protect his wife, seems an analog.
Bernard Hermann’s score is a major contributing factor to the suspense and fear in the film.