There are many fantastically evil villains throughout the cinematic universe. If you’re anything like me, characters like Darth Vader, the Joker and Hannibal Lecter come to mind when thinking of the best (or should I say worst) villains. But there is one who has the ability to hit an uncomfortable cord with just about everyone. He doesn’t have any special powers or super strength, in fact, he’s not even very smart. 

His name is Max Cady and he has been portrayed brilliantly by both Robert Mitchum (1962) and Robert DeNiro (1991) in Cape Fear.

While both actors are credited to making Cady such a believable villain it is the character himself that strikes fear in to our hearts. Through the perspective of Sam Bowden, the lawyer who Cady is taunting throughout the story, we see ourselves and so wonder, “what if this happened to me?”. It is Cady’s lack of any supernatural power that makes us think he could be anyone we walk past on the street in real life.

Cape Fear ushered in the era of psychological horror along with Psycho. It deals with taboo and edgy subject matter by today’s standards but even more so during it’s time in the 1960’s. It is about Max Cady who has spent the last 8-14 years with one thing on his mind: revenge against the man whose interference put him behind bars. Sam Bowden is the attorney who unsuccessfully (and purposefully) defended him on a rape charge that, after being reduced to battery, sent him to prison. At the time of his trial, Cady was illiterate, but during his imprisonment he has become a bookworm, reading literature, philosophy and in particular, law learning the loopholes so he may legally terrorize Bowden’s wife Peggy and teenage daughter, Nancy. 

The film follows Cady as he terrorizes the Bowden family, but always outside the long arm of the law. There are no witnesses when he poisons the family dog. And is only standing in a public area when he’s outside Nancy’s school or leering at her on a boat dock. It makes us think that anyone could do this to us at anytime if they were sick enough, which is what makes Cady’s character so haunting.

In the 1962 version, directed by J. Lee Thompson, Sam Bowden is a well-regarded lawyer; the family man. You empathize with his decision to withhold evidence from the court which would keep Cady from going to jail, because he knows Cady is a terrible man. Mitchum “plays the villain with the cheekiest, wickedest arrogance and the most relentless aura of sadism that he has ever managed to generate.” [1]

Cady is still the same disgusting creep in the 1991 version but “As Scorsese and his screenwriter, Wesley Strick, have created him, Cady isn’t merely a psychopath, he’s a Nietzschean superman, the cruel, killing hand of justice meting out a stern, remorseless form of punishment. Nobody is more frightening in these roles than De Niro, particularly when he’s as fully committed as he is here.” [2] The villain is not the only difference in Scorsese’s version. Bowden is a womanizer who is in what looks to be the beginning of yet another affair. While Cady is still clearly the villain here, he is the villain who has been wronged against the hero who has sinned. 

Cape Fear is ageless: still unapologetic, still chilling, still raising relevant questions. Both movies have achieved this through the use of Cady as the villain. A villain that is a force to be reckoned with and who stands with the greats in movie history.