Robert Mitchum did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Max Cady in Cape Fear.
The man being none other than Max Cady played by Robert Mitchum. Now the last time I covered a performance by Mitchum was for his stellar performance as the Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. In that film Powell was a man with a delusion that he had a higher importance as a servant of God, and Mitchum played him with a fitting stylistic flair. Well here Mitchum plays a man who has no such delusions of a higher importance. Cady is low down scum, and Mitchum plays it as though Cady is well aware of that fact. Mitchum's performance is brilliant though in the way he maneuvers the whole character. In the earliest scenes we get Cady as he stalks Sam and his family though in a way as though he just accidentally has shown up each time. Mitchum has an ease about himself in his work that actually far more off putting. Mitchum's manner is very specific and we see from Sam's view a man carefully watching his family, while anyone else just in a cursory glance wouldn't notice anything wrong at all. Yet at that closer examination, even before we learn anything about Cady, it is clear that there is something very wrong with the man. Again though Mitchum's so good in that he makes something so quietly wrong about him, in just that certain slight smile of his, and those eyes which are relaxed yet constant in their gaze.
Accents are always a tricky thing, as they can sometimes almost cripple a performance, like another guy who took his hand at playing Max Cady sometime down the road. Mitchum's accent here is masterful though in the subtle southern drawl in his voice that adds so much to his character. There's something so terrific about Mitchum's work is that from the start of the film, the whole plan really is in Cady's mind the entire time. In turn Mitchum plays Cady as quite the relaxed fellow, and there is something quite unpleasant about just how relaxed Mitchum is in the role. The reason being that Mitchum does not present as though Cady does not care, but rather his plan of revenge is all that's on his plate in terms of life plans so there's no need to rush things. When at one point Sam tries to buy him off, Cady flatly puts it that would mean Sam's getting off too easy, and this idea is perfectly realized through Mitchum's performance. When Cady just watches Sam, with Sam knowing, or Sam directly tells him to leave him alone, there is such a sick pleasure that Mitchum reflects in his face as he is loving every minute he makes Sam for every minute he believes he suffered in prison. Mitchum shows Cady's will to wait, because for him waiting is half of the fun.
Mitchum's whole performance here is completely spellbinding in a strange way because of just how smooth and elegant he is in playing a man who could be possibly best described as gutter trash. Again Mitchum though only uses this to add to the tension of the film by such a terrible man, though is able to come across as respectable enough though in a most peculiar way. Mitchum does not make it as a facade which is truly remarkable about his work. Instead Mitchum is able to make Cady so comfortable about himself that to be as despicable as he is does not phase him in the least. One of the most chilling scenes in the film actually is when Sam attempts to bribe Cady away. Cady goes about telling Sam something he supposedly lost from his prison time, that being his wife and child. Cady though is not telling this to Sam to garner sympathy or offer even a real reason for his vengeance, but instead simply setting up a story he feels best explains his intent. The story being that he later brutally raped his wife, who remarried, and blackmailed her into inaction. What's so unnerving about the story is how Mitchum manages to be so convincing in portraying the ease in which Cady tells the story. Anger does not even haunt the description, Mitchum instead presents a man content with exactly who he is.
Cady's a diabolical villain in a unique obnoxious sort of way, in that Cady's method of avoiding getting caught before in acting his revenge is to use every law in the book to keep the police's hands tied, and even potentially Sam in legal trouble. Mitchum again is marvelous as he again plays Cady as very self aware, and carries himself in such a smug fashion as he utilizes his abuse of the law to the point that he flaunts it right in Sam's face. One particularly effective scene of this is when Sam spots Cady lurking around his family, and he he physically assaults him, with Mitchum again only exuding such a devious pleasure as he plays the victim to the group of onlookers. A realization from watching his performance eventually comes in that how believable Mitchum makes Cady, and he is genuinely terrifying as it is not difficult to imagine being hounded by such a man. It's genius on Mitchum part in that he realizes this so effortlessly and makes him a ticking time bomb without the certain direct intensity you might expect. The thing is even with all the earlier scenes of Cady being such amoral fiend, and even though it is indeed not a facade, that's not all there is to Cady. In fact as Cady himself might say all that before that was just kids stuff, Mitchum still has something up his sleeve "that you ain't ever gonna forget".
That being when Cady finally makes his moves against Sam, which is not against Sam himself, but rather against Sam's wife and daughter. The animal within the confident man reveals itself and Mitchum is absolutely startling in revealing the primal viciousness in Cady as he goes about his task which includes murdering a man sent to guard the Bowdens. Mitchum reveals a most disturbing determination in Cady as he finds such a vile passion in Cady, even when he attacking Sam's wife while suggesting she sacrifice herself for her daughters sake. Again Mitchum is so chilling though by still keeping a calm in Cady as he makes such horrible suggestions, or even when he terrifies Sam's daughter just by staring at her in such a sick, yet gentle fashion. Mitchum plays the whole sequence as a man basically living out his dream. When Sam comes to stop him, and is ready to kill Cady. Mitchum final blunt deliver of "Go ahead I just don't give a damn" at the prospect of death is only fitting to his Cady. As Mitchum shows that the revenge was all there was to his life, and being denied that, well he might as well as die. This is outstanding work from Robert Mitchum as well as one those cases where the actor manages to make his performance engaging just in itself. Mitchum's performance is never without purpose. He brings the titular fear to the film through his portrayal that proves a villain can be frightening while barely even raising his voice.