There is a scene near the beginning of J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear in which we see Max Cady (Robert Mitchum, every bit as menacing as he was in Night of the Hunter) sitting in a bar and eyeing a woman of his liking. We see her at a table, cut back to him looking, and then see her return the look. It’s a simple shot/reverse-shot sequence, but Robert Mitchum’s look and body language, combined with the lack of background in the shot of the woman’s face, turns it into an especially controlling gaze. We know that Cady just served eight years for rape and is stalking the family of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the key witness in the court case, and even the arrival of the cops cannot take away the feeling that something very bad is about to happen to this woman.
It doesn’t, but it’s a testament to Thompson’s direction that we think it will, and the feeling generated by the simple exchange of looks in the sequence pervades every scene in which Cady poses an immediate danger. Later, we see him drink a beer and watch Sam’s daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) continue to work on a boat unsupervised. This time, the look is not returned, Sam and his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) have just left, and it’s early enough in the film for it to take an abrupt shift in which Cady kidnaps or attacks her without dramatically and unbelievably altering the tone. Once again, however, he does not. When Nancy sees him later and runs through a building trying to escape, the look is again altered: We see, as Nancy does, just the torso of a figure that appears to be in pursuit. This time it is not even Cady, who never even entered the lot the building stands on, but through a masterful understanding of the look and its cinematic function, Thompson conveys horror.
In addition to being a taut work on the power of the male gaze—both in its malicious intent and in its sometimes counter-theoretical ability to move the plot forward—Cape Fear is a legal thriller that avoids easy answers. It does not take place in the courtroom, but Sam, in addition to being the star witness, is also an attorney, so much of the film sees him caught between his professional obligation to the law as it stands and his personal wish to change it. A colleague tells Sam when he cannot find reason to arrest Cady, “either we have too few laws or not enough,” and the quote serves as a starting point for the film’s themes. Cady used his eight years in prison to study law, so he makes sure not to do anything illegal, but his stalking is clearly one of opportunism: when he has a chance to attack Nancy and Peggy, there is no doubt that he will. Until then, however, what can be done? Bowden goes so far as to betray the law and pay to have Cady beaten after attempts to have him arrested for other crimes fail, but Cady is too clever, and eventually Sam has to set a trap.
That leads to a masterful, sustained final scene that builds and releases tension for each of four separate encounters—Sam, his wife, his daughter, and his help all have a turn with Cady—and Thompson mixes things up in using both surprise and suspense. It’s a constant battle not just between the two men, but also of looks, and also a constant revision of a legal shortcoming with no clear fix. This is Hollywood moviemaking at its finest.