"Psycho" was clearly a touchstone for "Cape Fear," which marks its 50th anniversary this month. Besides a villain with a dark sexual history and twisted tastes, "Cape Fear" borrows from the then-recent Hitchcock film a similar use of light and shadow, the chilling talents of composer Bernard Herrmann, and supporting actor Martin Balsam as an ineffectual authority figure. But where Norman Bates is a monster to be pitied, a Freudian textbook case with no control over his violent impulses, Max Cady is fully in control, a methodical sadist, a rapist who spends the whole movie planning to rape the hero's wife and teenage daughter and brazenly announcing his plans to do so.
To portray the character, Mitchum characteristically underplays the menace -- and is all the scarier for it. For most of the movie, he's simply slouching around, just out of reach (literally and figuratively) of Gregory Peck's Sam Bowden, conveying all the threats he needs to with his hooded eyes and devil-may-care attitude. As he stalks Bowden and his family, the threats escalate -- the family dog slain, a woman beaten and threatened with worse if she testifies, the thugs Bowden sends to roust him easily dispatched -- yet Mitchum barely breaks a sweat. At least not until the end of the movie.
At that point, Mitchum finally lets loose and brings all his physical menace to bear. First he terrorizes the Bowden women on the houseboat; Mitchum famously improvised the sequence where he cracks an egg over Polly Bergen and smears it on her chest. Later, he and Peck have a vicious fight in a primeval swamp. Cady's goal all along has been to take from Bowden all he believes was taken from him as a result of Bowden's testimony against him years ago -- his family, his freedom, his dignity, his humanity -- and by the time he's urging Bowden to shoot him, he's practically succeeded in his quest and made Bowden into a brute nearly as monstrous as himself.
This was pretty bleak stuff for the time (and remains so even today). Censors in both the U.S. and the U.K. demanded extensive cuts, critics found the movie tawdry and exploitative, and audiences stayed away. Yet the movie's reputation grew over the years, mostly because Mitchum's performance was so terrifying that it's impossible to dismiss as mere exploitation fare. (By 1991, when Martin Scorsese remade it, "Cape Fear" was routinely referred to as a classic, a designation no one would have imagined three decades earlier.)
But the film also lasted because it helped launch a couple of trends in the thriller genre. One was having a villain who twisted the law for his own purposes. Lawyer Bowden places his faith in the criminal justice system, but Cady is careful to keep his provocations just out of range of prosecution. Eventually, Bowden is forced to abandon his principles to drive Cady away (hiring goons to beat and threaten him), but that only allows Cady to claim the legal high ground and assert that he, not Bowden, is the one being harassed and menaced. By the end of the film, Bowden himself is unapologetically lying in wait to kill Cady, and it's only a moment of 11th-hour restraint, in which he decides not to kill his prey but make him spend the rest of his life behind bars, that he returns to his faith in the legal system. This notion of a villain who exploits the technicalities of law and all but forces the hero into vigilantism would bear fruit much later, in 1970s movies like "Dirty Harry," "Straw Dogs," and "Death Wish."
The other trend was the idea of a villain who seems to spring from the hero's own id, coming back to punish him for his sins (real or imagined). Mitchum's Harry Powell in "Night of the Hunter" was such a figure as well, summoned as if from a nightmare, but that was a bad dream from which one might eventually wake up. Not Max Cady, bent on revenge and forcing his antagonist to become the monster himself in order to defeat him. David Lynch was fond, in the late 1980s and early '90s, of such characters, like Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet," who forces young Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) to recognize his own kinky, sadomasochistic side, or the various grotesques in "Wild at Heart," which force Sailor (Nicolas Cage) into a pattern of violence and flight. (The opening scene of that movie, in which Sailor kills a thug with his bare hands, takes place in the town of Cape Fear.)
The late '80s-early '90s were also marked by a cycle of thrillers that could be called the "____ From Hell" genre. The hero, usually a yuppie with a well-appointed home and satisfying personal life (like Sam Bowden), would be stalked by an interloper who would escalate the threats, Cady-style, and use the legal system to ruin the hero's life before moving in for the kill. "Fatal Attraction" helped launch this wave, with Glenn Close as the living retribution for Michael Douglas's adultery. (Like Cady, she kills the family pet and threatens the daughter while staying out of the law's reach.) If "Fatal Attraction" depicted the one-night-stand from hell, then "Pacific Heights" featured the tenant from hell, while "Single White Female" featured the roommate from hell, "Sleeping With the Enemy" the ex-husband from hell, "Unlawful Entry" the cop from hell, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" the nanny from hell, and "The Temp" the secretary from hell.
In the midst of this cycle came Scorsese's "Cape Fear." Here, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) was more clearly culpable than Peck's Bowden had been, having violated his own legal ethics to help put Cady (Robert De Niro) behind bars. Nolte's Bowden is also an adulterer, and the woman whom the paroled Cady rapes and disfigures is his mistress. Unlike Mitchum's Cady, who seems to enjoy his own sadism, De Niro's Cady is a grim agent of self-righteous, Biblical vengeance. As in the other "____ From Hell" movies, there's an element of class envy, with the villain making the hero feel guilty not only for his past misdeeds but also for his material success.
In the end, though, that's what makes the "____ From Hell" villains, including De Niro's Cady, less scary than Mitchum's prototype. These characters, especially De Niro's Cady, are cartoons, superhuman and all-but-unkillable (the villain bolting up from his apparent demise for one last murderous lunge, a trope borrowed from slasher films, is a staple of these thrillers). Their function in the plot (as nemesis bent on punishing sins of the flesh and of the wallet) is all but written on their bodies; literally so, in the case of De Niro's tattooed Cady. By contrast, Mitchum is all about understatement and mystery. His Cady can't be psychoanalyzed away or bargained with. He isn't a slave to his nature or at the mercy of some past psychological trauma; he's simply evil. He knows what he's doing and is going to enjoy himself doing it while daring you to stop him.
Mitchum's Cady has the same last line that Clark Gable's Rhett Butler does in "Gone With the Wind": "I don't give a damn." For Butler, that's a declaration of independence, an assertion that he plans to reforge his shattered but still rakish spirit. For Cady, it's a threat, a warning that he can't be broken. It's a line that could have been Mitchum's motto, since it was a sentiment he conveyed on screen more often and better than anyone else. Sometimes it was in the service of a cynical antihero, but here, it's a snarl of contempt for Peck and all the civic and social virtues he represents. You could argue that it's just attitude, but attitude is really all it took for Mitchum to create one of the most frightening villains in screen history.