Back in 1991 this Martin Scorsese film seemed an anomaly: an unabashedly
commercial thriller, and a remake to boot. The film has many good
things, but just as many not-so-good ones.
The original 1962 CAPE FEAR was a slick and compact
adaptation of a 1957 John D. MacDonald novel, starring Gregory Peck as
an upstanding lawyer and Robert Mitchum as a psychotic rapist determined
to take Peck down for putting him away. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, the
film is a taut and terrific grade-B thriller that was also something of
an envelope-pusher; the climax wherein Mitchum smears egg paste on
actress Polly Bergen’s chest was particularly shocking to audiences of
the time. Martin Scorsese, America’s greatest contemporary director,
calls the original CAPE FEAR “a perfect B film…a perfect film noir, and
you can’t do that again.”
Yet Scorsese ended up helming this remake, prodded by
his frequent collaborator Robert De Niro, who headlined the film. Steven
Spielberg was the (uncredited) executive producer and Gregory Peck and
Robert Mitchum turned up in supporting parts (with, in a reversal of
their roles in the original film, Mitchum playing a good guy and Peck a
not-so-good one). The film, released in November of 1991, was a solid
commercial hit, and jump-started Scorsese’s post-1991 career.
Max Cady is a psychotic rapist who’s bulked himself
up and tattooed his body with a dozen or so Biblical verses. His aim is
to turn himself into “something more than human.” Upon being released
from a Georgia prison Cady tracks down his lawyer, one Sam Bowden. Cady
blames Sam for putting him away, as the latter deliberately suppressed
evidence in his trial.
Cady harasses Sam, along with his wife and teenage
daughter Danielle, by acting obnoxious in a movie theater, sitting on
the fence outside their home and poisoning their dog. Sam files a
restraining order, to which Cady responds by picking up and brutalizing
a woman with whom Sam is having an affair.
Next Cady instigates a decidedly creepy encounter with
Danny in her school basement. This drives Sam over the edge, and he
hires some tough guys to rough up Cady. The latter, alas, withstands the
brutality and beats up his abusers.
Sam pretends to leave town and so lure Cady to his
house. A cop friend is stationed in the house with a gun but Cady busts
in with ease, killing the cop and also the Bodens’ live-in maid.
Sam decides (unwisely) the only remaining option for
the Bowdens is to drive off to the family houseboat, moored in the
appropriately monikered Cape Fear. But Sam is unaware that Cady has
attached himself to the bottom of his car, and so is going with them to
Cape Fear, and a nightmarish showdown amid a monster storm.
To my mind CAPE FEAR occupies the same place in the
Scorsese pantheon as THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and KUNDUN: an
interesting but flawed experiment that sees Scorsese working outside his
comfort zone. That explains the awkwardness of the film, decked out with
visual quirks that are distracting and show-offy (unlike Scorsese’s
previous effort GOODFELLAS, where the stylistic extravagance was
smoothly integrated into the whole). The same goes for the overbearing
Christian symbolism, which is heavy handed and gratuitous. Another
annoyance is the remixed music, taken from Bernard Herrmann’s original
score, which feels consistently out of place and plain weird. Back in
1991 THE DEPARTED and SHUTTER ISLAND were several years in the future;
commercial moviemaking was something Scorsese hadn’t yet perfected.
Yet the film is undeniably exciting, intense, and
surprisingly gory. This CAPE FEAR may be a commercial exercise whose
primary intent was to put asses in seats, yet Scorsese was fully engaged
with the material. He and screenwriter Wesley Strick also subtly
inverted the conservative outlook of the original film and source novel
by making the protagonist a less-than-honorable individual who engages
in court misconduct, screws around on his wife and can’t control his
teenage daughter. There’s even a feminist message, with Sam’s fuckmate
(played by Scorsese’s then-girlfriend Illeana Douglas) scared to testify
against Cady because of society’s attitudes toward promiscuous women.
Acting-wise the film belongs to Robert De Niro, who
makes for a great over-the-top villain, and a then-unknown Juliette
Lewis as the teenage Danielle. Their sexually-tinged meeting on a school
stage is the film’s most striking sequence, and certainly the creepiest.
Neither of the stars Nick Nolte or Jessica Lange make much of an
impression, unfortunately, but then the true “star” of this film was
behind the camera, and CAPE FEAR is a worthy, if flawed, addition to
that star’s distinguished repertoire.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Barbara De Fina
Screenplay: Wesley Strick
(Based on a novel by John D. MacDonald)
Cinematography: Freddie Francis
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Cast: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lang, Joe Don Baker, Juliette
Lewis, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Illeana Douglas, Martin Balsam,
Fred Dalton Thompson, Zully Montero