A film review by Craig J. Koban
15th Anniversary Retrospective
1991, R, 130 mins.
Max Cady: Robert De Niro / Sam Bowden: Nick Nolte / Leigh Bowden: Jessica Lange
/ Danielle Bowden: Juliette Lewis
Back in early 1990’s Martin Scorsese had absolutely nothing to prove to movie audiences and critics. By 1991 he could easily take claim to making the finest film of the 1970’s in TAXI DRIVER, the finest film of the 1980’s in RAGING BULL, and he walked away with top honors for the most outstanding film achievement of the relatively new decade of 1990’s with GOODFELLAS. At this time in his illustrious career he could also be regarded (and still is now) as the single best filmmaker of his generation.
The question that this leads me to is this: Why would Scorsese – the virtuoso talent that he is – feel the need to helm a remake of the 1962 classic Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum thriller CAPE FEAR?
The short answer: Because he could.
Many critics (and fans of Scorsese) were vocally bitter about his apparent “selling out” to the big budget, Hollywood juggernaut by making CAPE FEAR. There is absolute truth to the claim that this 1991 remake – his first follow-up film to his immeasurably well-received gangster epic GOODFELLAS – was Scorsese’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking. Backed by the suits at Universal Studios and having been handed down a budget that dwarfed his other previous inexpensive, esoteric offerings (FEAR cost the then high $35 million), Scorsese’s remake was everything but a small, modest, and deeply personal film-going venture. The film was also, for its time, Scorsese’s most widely seen and successful work (it grossed over $77 million at the domestic box office and would only be later eclipsed by THE AVIATOR and GANGS OF NEW YORK as his most profitable films).
Yet, having said all of this, does CAPE FEAR represent Scorsese pandering down to contemporary audience tastes? Was it him selling his soul to the moneymaking machine of Hollywood? Was it him driving all of the creative and artistic juices out of his filmmaking repertoire and instead journeying down the aesthetic road most traveled approach to making films? Was this, in essence, him selling out?
Not at all.
If anything, making CAPE FEAR was a shrewd and daring move on the maverick director’s part. The film was significant in allowing for him to gain some much needed commercial success (which, let’s face it, had eluded him for most of his career). Despite the fact that his films were incredibly respected as some of the pre-eminent works of their time, many of them failed to find an audience. Like some of his highly successful colleagues (namely Steven Spielberg), perhaps Scorsese realized that the key to extending his career into spearheading the types of projects that he was passionate for was to develop some commercial clout. Spielberg definitively knew the value of this line of thinking (he has made some of the great populist entertainments of all-time that made money, but these films afforded him the luxury of making more personal and intimate works, like SCHINDLER’S LIST and the more recent MUNICH). With the large commercial success of CAPE FEAR, Scorsese was allowed – in pure hindsight – to peruse deeper and more dramatically penetrating works with larger resources than he had ever been given before. Perhaps if CAPE FEAR was a failure, then he may have not been given the go-ahead for more expensive and lavish productions he would later make, like GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR.
On a more creative level, CAPE FEAR is still pure Scorsese all the way throughout its 130 minutes. The film’s handling of the original story and characters have definitive ruminations of the type of flourishes Scorsese has given to his past works (the personas in his remake are fully fleshed out and dramatically flawed people, all who exhibit traits to their personalities that make them simultaneously sympathetic and despicable). There is a handling of the roles in the film that works beyond the confines of a typical thriller. If anything, Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR is a wonderfully atypical excursion into the thriller/suspense genre. It keenly demonstrates what a genius is able to do with a conventional genre when he is given lavish resources at his disposal, most importantly a good script, brilliant performances by Oscar caliber actors, and sumptuous production values.
That is why CAPE FEAR is one of Scorsese’s most odd, irreverent, and unconventional films. It is by no means his proudest moment as a director, but as a film that is fairly representative of a work of escapism and “entertainment”, it’s a strong piece in on itself. It is not a reflection of the director “selling out” in any way shape or form; it’s more reflective of Scorsese’s cathartic handling of his own inner desires and dilemmas with the types of films he has made throughout his career. He, no doubt, had the market cornered on mobsters, tragic and emotionally flawed anti-heroes, and various incarnations of New York life. Yet, by his own admission, CAPE FEAR was a film that Scorsese wanted to make to see how he could handle a genre that was decidedly more routine and conventional that he was accustomed to. Basically, making the film answered his own questions to himself as to whether or not he could make a film in the style of a genre that he has had little exposure to. The film was like an assignment he gave to himself.
After seeing again CAPE FEAR just recently, the film is a wickedly constructed potboiler. It's a grand, sprawling, exuberant, stylish, and impeccably made and acted genre picture. In a lesser director’s hands, CAPE FEAR could have degenerated into a pathetic conglomeration of witless clichés and lame, ham-infested stock characters. The brilliant thing about his handling of this otherwise standard and conservative material is that Scorsese’s voice is felt throughout the film. It’s a terrifically handled bit of hybrid filmmaking. CAPE FEAR is a clear reminder of what a master he in how he impeccably intertwines the stable aspects of the thriller genre and imparts in them his own themes and stylistic trappings. Sure, CAPE FEAR is arguably one of his best looking films, has fantastic production values and looks expensive with its gallant cinematography and flashy special effects, but at the heart of it is a film that revels in Scorsese’s vivaciousness as a director. Instead of being an impersonal work of a witless popcorn director (ahem...Michael Bay), Scorsese made what could have a been a traditional and simple-minded genre picture into a thought-provoking and personal work with his own touches.
It’s all the more impressive how CAPE FEAR works considering how well the original 1962 version works as well. Both the ’62 and ’91 films have the same basic premise (a con man, once on parole, seeks vengeance on his lawyer, whom he thought botched his defense years ago). The lawyer in the original was played by Gregory Peck and the con man by Robert Mitchum (who seemed forever born to play deliciously macabre lowlifes). The overall concepts of both films are the same, but the tone and issues surrounding them are wholeheartedly different. That, I have always professed, is the key to a successful remake. The remakes that don't work are ones that are so painfully slavish to the originals that the resulting film is simply a dry regurgitation (see recent examples like THE BAD NEWS BEARS, THE LONGEST YARD, and this year's wretched and dull POSEIDON). CAPE FEAR was one of the first, great remakes. It had the keen foresight to know how to appropriate material that many held in high regard and retooled the story for a film that works on more divergent levels. With a distinctively Scorsese-ian touch, CAPE FEAR leaped off the screen as terrifically bold and fresh. It delightfully stands apart from its original as a unique work.
CAPE FEAR was not always going to be made by Scorsese. Spielberg himself had expressed a sincere interest in the material and responded well to an initial script by Wesley Strick. When it soon became apparent that he would have to bake down, he personally contacted Scorsese and felt him to be right for the job. Scorsese – in a recent DVD commemorative documentary for the film’s release – initially balked at the idea, fearing that it would be an insult to remake a classic B-picture that he loved as a young filmgoer. However, upon reading the script - and with an incessant Robert DeNiro at his side telling him that this would be the perfect vehicle for the two to re-team on - Scorsese relented.
DeNiro and Scorsese together always seemed to be the necessary ingredients for film success. They most certainly have never made a bad film together and both can be credited with collaborating on some of their finest works (like MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS). Even their modest efforts have produced endearing films (THE KING OF COMEDY and NEW YORK, NEW YORK still remain sublime). DeNiro obviously saw something that he could create with great gusto in the role of con man Max Cady. Perhaps as soon as he realized that there was a more fully dimensional and faceted creation to be had in the role that Scorsese saw innate potential in the film.
Max Cady – in Scorsese and DeNiro’s hands – is a chilling creation, to be sure. He is a monster and does vile and decrepit things. His penchant for abusing women is beyond amoral and sadistic. He is easily a flawed persona. Cady is a vicious, rednecked sadist that surely deserved his lengthy jail time for the brutal and unrelenting assault and rape of an innocent woman. What makes him more than just a cruel and despicable demon is the fact that he feels rather justified in thinking that his lawyer – Sam Bowden – gave him a horrendously bum rap. Cady is by no means innocent of rape and torture, but he unquestionably was not given a full and proper defense that the law was to afford him. Sure, justice was served by incarcerating this animal, but was the law served properly? That's Cady's issue, and he (correctly) has some trouble dealing with it.
When he went to jail he was a simpleton, and southern brute that could barely read and write. But Cady cultured himself during the 14 years of incarceration he received. First, he trained his body and then – most importantly – trained his mind. He started with simple readings (“I started with Dick and Jane and then went on to law books,” he later recounts). As he sharpens his intelligence he becomes something even more lethal and evil. He adorns his remarkably chiseled upper body with tattoos and biblical verses (“Thing is, there isn't much to do in prison except desecrating your flesh”). When he is finally paroled he has his eyes squarely on Bowden and wants him to feel for the type of “loss” he had experienced behind bars.
What makes Cady truly, truly cunning (and not completely unsympathetic) is the fact that he will go to any length whatsoever to prove that Bowden is also a guilty figure that is capable of doing morally questionable things. Bowden – played brilliantly by Nick Nolte – is sort of a foil and peculiar reflection of Cady. In the ’62 original Bowden was squeaky clean. In Scorsese’s hands he’s a flawed protagonist, almost as flawed as the antagonist. He obviously has guilt in his heart. He reveals that he willfully hid the promiscuous sexual history of Cady’s victim away from the judge, which he should have never done. Beyond that, Bowden is sort of a shallow and lecherous father and husband. He has an affair of sorts outside of marriage and his relationship with his wife Leigh (also played magnificently by Jessica Lange) and teenage daughter (played in an early breakout performance by the then unknown Juliette Lewis) has seen better days. What is interesting is the notion that the Bowden’s have huge issues long before Cady steps in to make their collective lives a living hell. All Cady does is act as an emotional catalyst to open up their wounds even more fully.
Cady is also a refreshingly intelligent piece of vermin. He’s not a dumb and axe wielding sociopath. He’s a smart, ruthless, and sophisticated sociopath. He obviously read Sun Tsu's THE ART OF WAR in prison and followed his most widely respected tenant of battle – attack the enemy’s heart first, then their body. A typical vengeful killer would storm into the Bowden’s house and viciously kill them all without a blink in their eye. That is not a satisfying bit of revenge for Cady. He attacks the Bowden’s hearts first, stirring in them all of their sense of insecurity in one another. He also knows precisely how to push their buttons. He’s an annoying SOB and does just about everything legally to drive them to the brink. He antagonizes with words, but never initially physically harms them. He shows up uninvited to their home, but never steps foot on their property for it to be construed as trespassing. Bowden himself actual draws first blood. Realizing that Cady has not done anything that he can legally strike him down with, Bowden hires a bunch of goons to beat a lessen out of him. However, when Cady easily beats them all to a pulp, Bowden soon understands his dire mistake.
Again, that’s the subtle and brilliant strokes that Scorsese infuses in this material. You feel for both the villain and hero, both of whom inspire our contempt and understanding. Typical thrillers give us cardboard cutouts for characters that are clearly delineated as black and white (we know who is bad and who is good). In Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR it’s often hard to decipher; there are undeniable shades of grey. Cady is a lecherous fiend that should go away for life, but he was wronged by Bowden years ago and we feel his frustration. Bowden is a “good man” in the sense that he wants to protect his wife and kid. Yet, he inspires some hatred in the sense that (a) he’s an adulterer, (b) he willingly went out if his way to not help Cady with the proper and fair defense he deserved, and (c) he defied the law by hiring some roughnecks to do his own dirty work. As a result, CAPE FEAR works as a much more layered and introspective character piece and study than it otherwise is given credit for.
Even the daughter is a flawed person. She rightfully hates it when her parents argue and fight, but she also nearly “sleeps with the enemy” during one of the film’s most eerie and chilling moments. Obviously, being 16 and highly impetuous and naïve, Lewis’ character would be willing to do just about anything to piss her parents off. Perhaps that is why she is attracted to Cady. She is aroused by the idea of Cady (the enemy of her enemy is her friend, in this case, Cady hates her father, she hates her father, therefore…). However, she is also sexually attracted to the implied menace that Cady represents.
Just look at one scene where Cady poses as a drama teacher and invites Lewis to meet him in a darkened theatre. If you want to see acting better than just about anything you’ve seen, then look no further than this completely improvised moment between Lewis and DeNiro. It’s utterly unsettling to see Cady slowly and manipulatively use icy persuasion to lure Lewis to the dark side. He prays upon her adolescent insecurities (“Your mommy's not happy... your daddy's not happy, and you know what? You're not happy”). What is particularly creepy is that – even long after she discovers that Cady is not a drama teacher and he is her Dad’s enemy – she still is transfixed by the man and finds herself slowly being seduced by his slimy charms. Why? Maybe because – like many 16 year old girls – bad is sexy and attractive.
The handling of the characters and the individual performances absolutely shine in the film. Lewis was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the film, but nominations were curiously withheld for the equally strong work of Lange and Nolte. Nolte’s work as Bowden was arguably the most delicate and thankless piece of acting in the film, as he had to balance garnering both our sympathy and discontentment with his character. He does not play him straight as Gregory Peck did with the same role in 1962. Nolte plays Bowden as a good man that has sinned something awful. He’s not as big of a criminal as Cady, but he still is a criminal for breaking the law.
And then there is DeNiro who – like Lewis – also received a well deserved Oscar nomination for his performance as Cady. DeNiro's work in CAPE FEAR is undervalued and is not the type of degenerate caricature of a villain that many superficially thought his performance attained. DeNiro is utterly mesmerizing in presenting this villainous figure. He does have his moments of gloriously realized and over-the-top theatrics (a climatic scene with Bowden’s family during a storm on a ship is suitably boisterous and theatrical; Cady is a figure who is religious and devout, thus, he thinks that God is working through him to expose the sins of Bowden. The fact that he “looses it” here seems fitting).
Much like the Travis Bickle's and Jake LaMotta's of the past, DeNiro again in CAPE FEAR demonstrated his dedication to presenting a fascinating and faceted creation. He trained for months to get his body (reportedly) down to three per cent body fat, researched sexual predator crimes and interviewed real rapists, and even went as far as paying a dentist nearly $30,000 to make his teeth look suitably bad to play his degenerate character. When all is said and done, Cady is not DeNiro’s best performance, but it ranks up there. It’s a brilliant conceived and mounted creation that reminds us (even today, after witnessing DeNiro doing more comic films than dramatic) what a virtuoso, lively, and slick performance it is. It shows what a great actor can do if he is allowed to sink his teeth into a normally substandard character. Cady could have been a one-dimensional bore. With DeNiro channeling him, Cady remains one of the most terrifying and memorable villains of the 90’s.
CAPE FEAR was – up to that time – Scorsese’s most gorgeously crafted productions. His characteristic camera work, incredible usage of editing and juxtaposition of images, and haunting and beautiful cinematography all but secured CAPE FEAR as being a suspense film with a pulse. The film is a slick and an impressive achievement in big budget filmmaker for the director at the time, which would only see further fruition in even larger scale productions into the 90’s and the current decade. In a tremendous move, Scorsese wisely decided to employ Elmer Bernstein to faithfully recreate Bernard Herman’s beautiful and haunting score from the 1962 original. Herman easily can take credit for being one of the cinema’s all-time greatest composers, and his work on such films as CAPE FEAR, TAXI DRIVER, PSYCHO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and…yes…CITIZEN KANE remain praiseworthy accomplishments. Scorsese's inclusion of Herman’s magnificent 1962 score (one of my personal all-time favourites) reveals what a sensitive and respectful scholar he is to the works of the past.
Re-visiting Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the 1962 CAPE FEAR – even 15 years after its initial release – ardently demonstrates how a bravura filmmaking talent is able to penetrate a stoic and oftentimes-flaccid genre with his own matchless sensibilities. The film was not so much indicative of Scorsese selling out to making bigger pictures with larger budgets for wider appeal (nearly every modern critically praised director can’t claim immunity from those seductive opportunities). What it shows off is his own inner desire as to whether he could pull off a film in a genre that he had never attempted before. What CAPE FEAR did, and still does, is show Scorsese’s mastery of traditional Hollywood genres. For anyone to come out and say that the finest filmmaker of the last 30 years should exclude himself from such options is ludicrous. Scorsese did not lose his soul by making an A-list Hollywood picture that made money. Rather, he put his soul into the film that, in far worse hands, would have lacked soul. That is the essence behind why Scorsese is so gifted. He can make the unimaginable fascinating and involving. As far as modern thrillers and remakes go, his CAPE FEAR still stands the test of time as being one of the better ones.