Barry Forshaw on Cape Fear: The Films

Most of us will know the film of Cape Fear featuring Robert De Niro’s dark, brooding central figure. But there was also an earlier version, just as good, which found itself pulled every which way by the sensibilities of the day.


After two successful film adaptations, more people will be familiar with the screen takes of John D. MacDonald’s Cape Fear than with the author’s blistering novel (originally called The Executioners). Rediscovering the novel will be a revelation for those readers, not least for the very different turns the source book takes from the film, particularly in the violent and uncompromising endings.

These days, MacDonald is best known for his series of books featuring tough private investigator Travis McGee, but some of his best work is to be found in standalones such as this one (and it’s interesting that standalones, rather than series novels, sometimes bring out the best in certain authors – take, for instance, Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith).

MacDonald, like so many of the best American crime novelists, began his career writing for the hard-boiled pulp periodical Black Mask, with unvarnished and diamond-hard tales of criminality and double-crosses. The Travis McGee books were highly successful, but Cape Fear/The Executioners, with its memorably nasty villain (a sexual sadist with a psychopathic hatred of a lawyer on whose family he intends to wreak gruesome revenge), is one of his most distinctive books, and boasts a sinewy prose even more cut-to-the-bone than that of the Travis McGee books.

It was perhaps inevitable that a film of such a cinematic text would be made – and the second time it boasted no less a director than Martin Scorsese. But the first version, surprisingly, was directed by an Englishman, the versatile J. Lee Thompson. His version of Cape Fear (1962) became known as ‘The Film of a Thousand Cuts’, those cuts principally involving the sexual threat to the prepubescent daughter of the lawyer played by Gregory Peck, with Robert Mitchum at his most menacing as a potential rapist.

Censor John Trevelyan and his team were most worried by the insistent rape threat in the film, which is not explicitly stated but continually maintained, and of which the audience would have been aware as the Mitchum character has been serving time for a sex crime – thus allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about what will happen to the Peck character’s daughter.

The director was widely reported as saying that he had been told his film would have to be cut in 150 places. He declined to undertake this butchery himself (the statement has since been an issue of some contention). The cuts were eventually made, but once again recent home cinema issues of the film have reinstated them, and – as is so often the case – the threat to the safety of the nation appears to be minimal. John D. MacDonald’s original novel, thankfully, suffered no such scissoring.


Have you seen Cape Fear? Let us know what you thought of it in the Comments, below, and if you’ve seen both versions.

Barry Forshaw is a writer and journalist whose books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, along with books on Italian cinema, film noir and the first UK biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon. His latest books are Euro Noir and British Gothic Cinema. He edits Crime Time, the foremost crime fiction news and reviews website.