Cape Fear (1991) poster

Martin Scorsese’s version of CAPE FEAR (the original film was directed by J. Lee Thompson and released in 1962), in an era when Hollywood seems to churn out pointless and anonymous remakes ad nauseum,  is an example of a remake done right. While Scorsese’s picture is inspired by the original, it doesn’t merely imitate scenes, update details for a contemporary audience, or lazily coast on the first film’s reputation. This is a remake that deepens and complicates the narrative and the characters in the film, muddying the moral waters for the audience.

The Plot of Cape Fear

Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a slick and successful lawyer with a talented and beautiful wife (Jessica Lange), a precocious teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis), a fancy car and a luxurious house. But things aren’t as idyllic as they seem. Not only is Sam estranged from his wife and unable to communicate with his daughter, he also has a mistress (Illeana Douglas) that he works with. But a ghost from Sam’s past is about to appear and throw his precariously managed life into turmoil.

Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a deranged criminal who Sam unsuccessfully defended 14 years ago, has been released from prison and is looking for Sam. Cady was convicted of raping and beating a 16-year-old girl, and his guilt is undeniable. However, at Cady’s trial, Sam suppressed evidence that this girl was promiscuous, a fact that Cady believes could have reduced his prison sentence. Now Cady is free and is out for revenge against Sam. Not only will Cady’s appearance uncover the sins of the father, but also bring the Bowden family’s repressed desires and anxieties to the surface.

Nick Nolte and Robert de Niro in CAPE FEAR (1991) (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Max Cady (Robert de Niro)

While Scorsese’s picture is inspired by the original, it doesn’t merely imitate scenes, update details for a contemporary audience, or lazily coast on the first film’s reputation. This is a remake that deepens and complicates the narrative and the characters in the film, muddying the moral waters for the audience.

While our sympathies undoubtedly lie with Sam, his fateful decision to suppress evidence relating to Cady’s case is nevertheless the cause of the ensuing problems. De Niro’s criminal sees himself as a righteous avenger, but he also represents the ugly side of Sam that has been festering over the years, particularly the lawyer’s duplicity at work and at home. Cady could also be seen as some kind of physical manifestation of Nolte’s guilt, as well as a representation of the baser instincts of the family as a whole: the lust, passion and violence that lurk beneath the seemingly perfect image of this all-American family.

Robert de Niro in CAPE FEAR (1991) (dir. Martin Scorsese)

If the film is taken literally, the seemingly indestructible Cady (with his miraculous ability to repel any attack, survive any injury and come back from the dead) is ridiculous. But Cady is presented as some kind of superhuman figure (or even a supernatural force) throughout the film. When he’s released from prison at the beginning of the film, a shot of Cady walking towards camera frames him against a thunderous, optically enhanced sky. Cady is also accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s tense score from the original film, which is adapted for this remake by Elmer Bernstein. With this in mind, Scorsese’s highly stylised approach to the material is therefore more understandable.

After taking a supporting role in Goodfellas, De Niro is back to playing the lead in a Scorsese picture, and the star throws himself into the part with gusto. De Niro paints Cady as a loud, vulgar lout who initially seems to be a vaguely menacing stalker. But as Cady’s harassment of the Bowdens turns to violence, he is revealed to be an intelligent, self-educated criminal with a thorough understanding of the law and a warped sense of justice. Nolte is often cast as a gruff, world-weary individual, but here he plays Sam as a seemingly respectable middle-class family man. Although Sam could be unsympathetic because of his past and present misdeeds, Nolte manages to bring both a sense of morality and authority to the role.

The Wife and Daughter

As Leigh Bowden, Jessica Lange takes what could have been a clichéd wife-in-peril role and imbues her character with a toughness and cynicism that helps her survive her troubled marriage and gives her the courage to match wits with Cady. And as the Bowden’s daughter, Juliette Lewis expertly captures the awkwardness of being a teenager, playing Danielle, a girl who’s both smart and inquisitive, while still being somewhat naïve and sheltered. When Cady (posing as a drama teacher) meets Danielle at school, he manipulates her by claiming to understand why she feels alienated by her parents. As well as being a creepy seduction scene, this is a suspenseful sequence; while we know how dangerous Cady is, Danielle has no idea of the gravity of her situation.

Juliette lewis and Jessica Lange in CAPE FEAR (1991) (dir. Martin Scorsese)

CAPE FEAR is unusual for a Scorsese picture in that it’s his most overtly conventional Hollywood film. However, Scorsese doesn’t seem constrained by the requirements of a genre picture, and is adept at crafting both numerous thrills and well-rounded characters. This film may be over-the-top, but it’s arguably more complex than the original version, which may be a tough thriller, but which is nevertheless black and white in its morality as well as its colour scheme. Like John Carpenter’s update of The Thing (1982), there’s a respect for the original version (Scorsese casts Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam – who all starred in the 1962 film – in key roles), but also a greater urgency to the proceedings. Instead of watering down or sanitising the original version, Scorsese takes the source material into more ambiguous, less comfortable territory. So while Cape Fear could well be Scorsese’s most commercial film to date, it’s also just as personal, and made with just as much intelligence and conviction, as his previous pictures.

Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1991, US, 128 mins

Cast: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam

CAPE FEAR Review by Martyn Bamber

 

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