In Cape Fear take one, Gregory Peck plays Sam Bowden, an attorney from a small Florida town who witnesses a vicious rape committed by Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) while visiting Baltimore. Bowden testifies against Cady and the brutal thug is sentenced to eight years in prison.
When he is released, the bitter Cady stalks Bowden, his wife (Polly Bergen) and daughter (Lori Martin), but is always clever and careful enough not to violate the law. Bowden enlists the aid of a local police chief (Martin Balsam) and a private detective (TellySavalas) but none of his efforts to harass Cady prove successful. A desperate Bowden even hires thugs to beat the unrepentant ex-con to a bloody pulp but Cady gives as good as he gets, and one of the thugs blows the whistle on Bowden’s involvement which leads to his disbarment. The film climaxes with a deadly cat and mouse game pitting Bowden and his family against the sadistic Cady who follows them on vacation to the bayous.
The original Cape Fear is an effective black and white thriller with a chilling score by the great Bernard Herrmann and an outstanding performance from Robert Mitchum, one of the few Hollywood stars of the time who would have consented to being cast as a vicious rapist who even preys upon Bowden’s teenage daughter. Mitchum is more impressive than Robert DeNiro in the remake, creating an aura of absolute evil without the aid of the bizarre camera work that contributes much to DeNiro’s twisted portrayal.
The remake is technically superior and, due to the more permissive climate of 1991, less certain as to who represents corruption, Cady or the supposedly upstanding Bowden. Scorcese’s 1991 remake starts off well with the psychotic Cady laughing obnoxiously and smoking a cigar as he watches John Ritter cavort across a movie theater screen in the banal comedy Problem Child. Cady is at the theater to begin his harassment of Bowden who is also in attendance with his family. Bowden, in a twist on the original, is a public defender who represented Cady fourteen years earlier in a statutory rape case but, believing Cady was guilty of a particularly vicious crime, withheld information about the teenage victim’s "promiscuity."
Now Cady wants revenge. This story, a simple tale of good versus evil, is given more complexity here by turning Cady’s prey into a deeply flawed man who, in addition to his unethical treatment of his client, is also an unfaithful husband with little influence over his morally dubious 15-year-old daughter (Juliette Lewis). Still, he does not deserve to experience the nightmare into which his family is plunged.
Scorcese’s Cape Fear conveys the unbalanced state of Cady’s mind by photographing him at wildly off-balanced angles, all of which conspire with DeNiro’s performance to make Cady a genuine monster, one of almost inhuman strength and resilience. As Bowden, Nolte is properly vulnerable as a man who has broken the law but has limits to his immorality. He is still too moral to meet Cady on equal ground. Jessica Lange as his suffering wife, Joe Don Baker as a private detective, and especially Juliette Lewis are all fine in supporting roles, but it’s DeNiro's and Nolte’s show all the way.
Unfortunately, this tightly crafted thriller falls apart long before the end as Cady survives far too many brushes with death to be believed, although a "brush" with death is hardly an apt description of a man’s being set on fire. Yes, Cady is set ablaze but is back, minus some skin and hair, to continue his terrorism only minutes later. It’s a fairly laughable episode unless you see it, as I do, as a surrealistic companion to the film that inspired it.
Cady did not terrorize Bowden with quite as much ghoulish glee in 1962, but he put his prey through enough horror that it would be understandable if Bowden suffered nightmares long afterward. If so, Scorcese’s remake could serve as the filmed account of an episode from Bowden’s dark dream world. In this nightmare, Cady, much more than a sadist, is the devil himself, a near cannibal who takes joy in the corruption of Bowden’s daughter, and whose cigar smoke is so thick and poisonous that it could have only originated in Hell itself. After being set on fire, Cady resembles Freddy Krueger, the dream generated psycho of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and seems to be just as indestructible. Because of this unbelievable turn of events, one has to approach this remake as a horrific dream from the anxious mind of Sam Bowden as played 29 years earlier by Gregory Peck. Otherwise, this Cape Fear, can only be seen as a joke.
The most intriguing aspect of the 1991 version is the way it pays homage to its source by dusting off Bernard Hermann’s excellent score in a newly recorded version by Elmer Bernstein, and by filling the cast with three performers from the original. Gregory Peck returns as a lawyer who represents Cady after Bowden had him beaten by a trio of punks; Mitchum takes over Martin Balsam’s role as the police chief; and Balsam inherits Ed Platt’s gavel as the judge. One wishes Scorcese had found room for Telly Savalas whose private detective is reborn in the person of the more hirsute Joe Don Baker.
But for all its state of the art technical skill and excellent performances, somehow this Cape Fear falls short of the original which itself misses the mark as a classic. It panders to an audience that finds mere suspense boring unless it is augmented by blood and brutality.
Scorcese made this film for Universal, a studio he once refused to work for until they wooed him with the promise to produce his pet project, the artistically brave but commercially foolish The Last Temptation of Christ. Perhaps Cape Fear was Scorcese’s way of thanking the studio for their support, and also a way to strengthen his own box-office power. Whatever his motives, what we have is neither artistic nor brave, but pure commercial filmmaking aimed right at the most mainstream audience imaginable. That alone makes his Cape Fear a nightmare.
For all its faults, Scorcese’s Cape Fear nonetheless demonstrates that a good story can weather the years and be adapted to reflect its times. What has changed is not so much the personnel, but the audience. Whatever horrors Robert Mitchum represented in 1962 were left to the imagination of the viewer whereas DeNiro’s crimes are trotted out before the no longer startled eyes of a cynical public that has been assaulted by so much mayhem on screen in the 29 year interim, that nothing, not even the sight of DeNiro chewing on and then spitting out a woman’s flesh, can affect their appetite for popcorn. The only thing that can shock us today is the price of the ticket.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks