Small-town lawyer Sam Bowden's life becomes torturous when Max Cady re-enters his life. Cady went to jail for 8 years after Bowden testified that Cady attacked a young woman. Now that Cady has been released, he begins to terrorize Bowden and his family, particularly targeting Bowden's daughter, Nancy. Initially, Cady uses his newfound knowledge of the law (learned in prison) to annoy the Bowden's, then things turn more sinister after he poisons the family dog.
Later remade by Martin Scorsese and as a Sideshow Bob episode of The Simpsons, this imitation Hitchcock thriller is a classic almost by default, with an appropriately uptight hero performance from Peck and merely good direction by long‑time journeyman J. Lee Thompson outweighed by a sure‑fire thriller premise (from John D. MacDonald's novel The Executioners) and the second‑best‑ever (after Night of the Hunter) Robert Mitchum villain performance.
Mitchum is seething but subtle as the insolent, insouciant animal, smiling and chomping on a cigar as he flaunts legal smarts picked up in the joint, laying out plans for a diabolical revenge against Peck and his squeaky‑clean wife (Bergen) and daughter (Martin), carefully harassing the family with lurking menace that doesn't actually break the law but making it perfectly clear that he intends to rape either or both of the women into catatonia.
People disturbed by Robert De Niro's mania in the remake might be even more creeped out by Mitchum’s bare-chested presence as he explains the precise legal definition of ‘consent’ to Bergen, cracking an egg in his hand and rubbing it into her chest. The climax, set in a conveniently-named river, is an especially exciting mano-a-mano pay-off to all the ratcheted-up tension, but it’s Mitchum's sly craziness which raises it to cult heights.
Bernard Herrmann's pounding score (reused in the remake) and sterling support is provided by a post-Psycho Martin Balsam (like Herrmann, one of several Hitch hold-overs on the cast and crew) and a pre-bald Telly Savalas.
This original version takes us on an intense journey of paranoia and conflicting feelings as the disturbingly vengeful Mitchum delights in our fears.