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Cape Fear (1991)

1 rating: 3.0
A movie directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson's 1962 thriller dabbles a bit in some fascinating psychological crosscurrents between its characters, but it finally trades in all that rich material for extensive and gratuitous violence. Robert … see full wiki

Tags: Movies
Director: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Release Date: 1991.11.13
MPAA Rating: R
1 review about Cape Fear (1991)

More Than a Remake

  • Jun 25, 2011
  • by
Critical comparisons between this film and J. Lee Thompson's brilliant 1962 adaptation of the excellent John D. MacDonald novel The Executioners are bound to be misguided and ill-conceived. Thompson's film threw Gregory Peck's innocent family of beautiful people to the mercies of an intensely sleazy Robert Mitchum. By contrast, Martin Scorsese's reworking features a modern family who are familiar with sinful indulgence, and are terrorized by a far more vicious Robert De Niro. While the earlier of the two films presents clearly defined moral boundaries, the latter indulges in relativism and uncertainty. The repulsive Max Cady was disturbing when performed by Mitchum and terrifying when reinterpreted though De Niro, but the squeaky-clean family of the first go-round is certainly not the dysfunctional group of the remake.

The point is, if you want to see the original Cape Fea r, go watch it, because this isn't it, not by a long shot. Thompson's vision of McDonald's novel is a tense, humane, relatively understated presentation of an outrageously audacious crime drama, and it deserves its recognition as a genuine classic.

On the other hand, Scorsese's handling of the source material is bloody and overblown, sometimes crossing the line from audacity into outright intentional kitsch. There's no doubt that he had a lot of fun making this, as he emphasizes the black humor of the script just as prominently as its shocking brutality. For some (including myself), this is a film that demands attention through its sheer viciousness; it's a truly lurid spectacle. For others, it's a melodramatic, unwatchable mess that wastes the impressive talents of its cast and crew. I can't say with certainty that either perspective is necessarily more valid than the other!

But whatever you think of it, anyone who denies Cape Fear as a technical accomplishment is demonstrably ignorant. Scorsese deftly implements swift zooms, breakneck panning and claustrophobic close-ups to effectively heighten tension and emphasize expression. In the hands of another, far less capable director (Jonathan Demme comes to mind) these techniques come off as obnoxious and pretentious. But coupled with the vibrant, pristine cinematography of Freddie Francis and Thelma Schoonmaker's typically intricate editing, all the nuances of the impressive performances on display here are accentuated. Along with The Color Of Money and Goodfellas, this is surely one of Scorsese's most visually impressive efforts. Elmer Bernstein's eerie reworking of Bernard Herrmann's devastating score for the original film is pervasively effective; the softer of the string-driven passages are especially chilling.

Nolte is perfect in the lead: his Sam Bowden is the embodiment of harried aggravation in all his buttoned-down Aryan glory. By contrast, De Niro's Max Cady is a far cry from Mitchum's shrewd, intimidating con man; this reinvention of the character is insanely obsessive, vicious and determined, alternating between a magnified Nietzschean self-awareness and Biblical self-righteousness. Cady went into prison as a savage, illiterate rapist and found both God and himself in the worst possible way over the course of fourteen excruciating years. He emerges on parole as a brawny, disciplined, well-read and extremely amorous self-proclaimed übermensch on the prowl for revenge and sex. His target is pretty ideal: not only did his former public defender (Nolte) sell him out by withholding evidence during his trial, he also obtained a juicy wife (Lange) and sired a cutie (Lewis) of a daughter while Cady was in the clink. It doesn't take much imagination to predict what this ex-con has planned.

Although the performances of the two male leads demand attention, the real star of the film is Jessica Lange, whose alternately sensuous and brutalized portrayal of Bowden's troubled, sexy spouse is nothing short of astounding. Lange owns every scene where she's prominently featured, conveying her character's desperation, disappointment and terror with disconcerting conviction. Lewis is also impressive as the vulnerable, sexually curious daughter; in the film's most perverse scene, De Niro attempts to seduce her with simultaneously titillating and repulsive results.

Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam are cast in a trio of small roles in homage to the original film, but those three veterans conduct themselves admirably in their short scenes. Peck is especially impressive as a typically eloquent southern prosecutor (replete in a white three-piece suit!). This brief cameo was Peck's last performance in a feature film, and it wasn't a bad way for him to finish his career.

As always, De Niro honed his body and persona with equal fervor for this role: lean and muscular, he delivers a convincing southern drawl. Nolte and most of the other Yankees of the cast capably follow suit and feel quite congruous amidst the genuine southerners: character actor, former senator and current Presidential nominee Fred Thompson and perennial good old boy Joe Don Baker in what's probably his last notable dramatic role.

The characters, themes and plot of this film are far more complex than those of the original. Bowden is hardly a man of moral integrity, and Cady, while reprehensible, certainly has a legitimate cause for his hatred. In many ways, the heightened moral relativism of the film makes it a more disorienting experience. In the original film, the audience knew who to root for. Here, the characters are intriguing and admirable in certain ways, but never enough to warrant sympathy. I certainly don't mind the film's violence, but Cady's makeshift trial on a squall-battered houseboat in the penultimate scene really is pretty silly. It's a shame that Scorsese and screenwriter Wesley Strick resorted to such a cheap, goofy contrivance, especially considering that their efforts produced what's otherwise an impressive retelling of a fine story.

It's strange to me that Cape Fear is regarded as one of Scorsese's lesser films; while it has its flaws, it's certainly better than most of what he directed in the '90s and 2000s, and it's infused with a certain authenticity that used to be a trademark of Scorsese films. Frankly, I'd prefer for Marty to stop making movies with a tacky coat of gloss and return to gritty, outrageous filmmaking like this. It's hardly his best effort, but the production design is distinct, the performances are excellent and the movie at least elicits a strong response from me. I certainly can't say the same for Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York.

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