Outspoken director John Waters once said “You shouldn’t be remaking the good movies. You should be remaking the bad ones in the hopes of improving them.” In theory, I am inclined to agree with Waters. Few remakes can hold a candle to their originals for inspiration. Most are little more than thinly disguised and an utterly misguided regurgitation of the past, while others make the even more futile attempt to break with tradition, usually wandering into the artistic mire and failing to gel on their own terms. But then what are we to make of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991); a remake based on a superior thriller – both film’s exceedingly compelling and successful in their own right and uniquely different from one another? Scorsese’s remake is a superb and harrowing psychological thriller - a diabolical masterpiece based on John D. MacDonald’s ‘The Executioners’, and more directly the 1962 B-noir film classic of the same name costarring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.
Yet Scorsese’s film, apart from its title and general premise, stands alone - a superior departure from both the book and the earlier movie in many ways. Originally, director Steven Spielberg had approached Robert DeNiro with a screenplay by Wesley Strick. DeNiro immediately liked the idea, and was ready to commit to the project outright. For one reason or another Spielberg decided to bow out from doing the movie, leaving DeNiro with the option to shop the story around elsewhere. So DeNiro took it to Scorsese who showed little interest at first, in as much for the fact that he did not want to do a remake as he felt Strick’s central narrative was too grandiose and void of the intimate familial connections he wanted to explore.
Scorsese did however connect with the similarities between the story's central antagonist Max Cady and those of Travis Bickle (whom DeNiro had played for Scorsese in Taxi Driver 1976). Eventually, Strick was brought on board and on set by Scorsese to reshape the story, emphasizing the familial discourse as well as the generational disconnect within the Bowden clan. Scorsese also asked Strick to remove the larger set pieces from the screenplay that he felt were too theatrical and not particularly compelling from a narrative point of view. Strick obliged. The results speak for themselves.
Plot wise, our story opens with the prison release of Max Cady (Robert DeNiro), an embittered rapist who has spent the last fourteen years behind bars for brutalizing a minor. Cady’s first bit of business is to reintroduce himself to his former attorney, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). It seems that while in prison Cady self-taught to interpret the law and, while perusing his own court records discovered Sam had suppressed a crucial piece of evidence about his victim’s promiscuity that might have set him free at the time of his trial.
Driven by revenge Cady slowly begins to unsettle the Bowden household. Wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is already rife with suspicions and cynicism beyond her years, thanks to an extramarital affair Sam had with one of his former law clerks. Daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is a typical angst-ridden teenager who believes her parents’ constant bickering perfectly illustrates just how hypocritical and out of touch they are. Max contacts Leigh first, returning a dog collar and leash after the family dog has mysteriously died. He further stakes out the Bowden home on the fourth of July and thereafter ingratiates himself to Sam’s latest flirtation; Lori Davis (Illeana Douglas) whom he brutally rapes as a precursor of the violence yet to befall the Bowdens. The infamous sequence in which Cady brutalizes Lori by taking a considerable bite out of her cheek was improvised at the last minute, using raw chicken as a more edible substitute for human flesh.
Max gains Danielle’s confidence by pretending to be her drama teacher and, in a nail-biting moment, performs a bizarre seduction that includes some very naughty thumb-sucking. Sam contacts Lieutenant Elgart (Robert Mitchum - Max Cady in the original film) but is informed that, apart from a mild warning there is nothing the law can do to repel Cady’s seemingly harmless advances. Sam’s next recourse is to contact private investigator Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) whose first attempt at hiring a trio of thugs to severely beat up Cady in a back alley backfires when Cady actually exacts his own wrath upon the men. Kersek then decides to stake out a trap at the Bowden home. But this too ends in a night of bloody carnage instead. Cady strangles Kersek with a piece of piano wire and slits the throat of the Bowden’s devoted housemaid, Graciella (Zully Montero). Discovering their bodies lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen, the terrified family retreat to their houseboat moored at Florida's Cape Fear, only to discover that Cady has managed to climb aboard the vessel first and is awaiting their arrival. Thus begins one traumatic night of terror where mere survival is the best that anyone can hope for.
Discrepancies between the original and the remake are many and worth noting. In the original story, Sam (Gregory Peck) is a loyal family man who witnessed Cady’s crime of rape and testified against him at trial. The Bowden’s teenage daughter (Nancy in the original) was terrorized by Cady in the earlier film from the start, as opposed to exploring her own sexualized thoughts through Cady’s devious manipulation of her impressionable mind. In the original the rape victim (Diane) was a transient barfly without any connection to the Bowden family. In introducing the character of Lori Davis in the remake as Sam’s burgeoning romantic dalliance, Scorsese crystallizes the immediacy of Cady’s purpose – his revenge against Sam and his family drawing its parallel between Sam's mild illicit romantic appetite and Cady's more ravenously destructive one. The remake is also blessed by a well-deserved bit of deja vu. Although no one but DeNiro was ever considered for Max Cady, the part of protagonist Sam Bowden went through several revisions before Nick Nolte signed on. Nolte infuses Sam with a sustained sense of flawed humanity, stripping away the cordial mask of his profession one layer at a time.
DeNiro is superb as the unrelenting and obsessive Pentecostal psychopath determined to teach Sam the true meaning of ‘loss.’ Jessica Lange delivers a searing performance as the dutiful wife once scorned and never again as trusting of her man or marriage vows. Cast in cameos, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (as Bible spouting attorney, Lee Heller) provide a direct link to the original movie. Henry Bumstead’s production design and impressive matte work by David S. Williams and Bill Taylor, coupled with Freddie Francis’ sumptuous cinematography produce a claustrophobic environment of ever-constricting desperation. Cape Fear is a disturbing spiral into the warped mind of a confirmed madman. But the film owes little to the original movie classic.
At the time of its release Scorsese was blessed by the fact that few remembered the 1962 film. The inside joke of having Mitchum play the noble lawman in the remake while Gregory Peck (1962's Sam) worms his way as the oily lawyer stands the conventions of the original movie on end. DeNiro's Max Cady is a perverse sadist. Mitchum's was merely a depraved reprobate. Peck's Sam was a variation on the actor's own persona - typecast as the perennial everyman with noble intentions. But Nolte's Sam is a tragically flawed philanderer. There's more of Max Cady in him than he's willing to admit - even to himself. And in narrowing the margin of error and blurring the line between the virtuous and the depraved Scorsese and Strick deliver a much more chilling comparison between these two men.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is hardly the eye-popping 1080p transfer I expected. In fact, colors are remarkably subdued when directly compared with Universal's 2-disc Collector’s Edition DVD release from some years ago. Flesh tones are the big improvement on the Blu-ray. On the DVD they appeared slightly pasty and overly pink. On the Blu-ray skin tones are varied and infinitely truer to life. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. But whites look a tad muddy to my eye, adopting either an ever so slight pinkish or bluish tint that is not present on the 2 disc DVD incarnation. Age related artifacts are the other big improvement on the Blu-ray. The DVD had minor edge enhancement and film grain that is digital in appearance. The Blu-ray's grain looks very filmic, while edge enhancement is virtually a non-issue. Where the Blu-ray absolutely excels is in its Tru-HD DTS audio that blows the anemic Dolby 5.1 on the DVD right out of the water. Bernard Hermann's repurposed score, ever so slightly tweaked by Elmer Bernstein, is the real benefactor here. Extras are all direct imports from Universal's 2 disc DVD set and include a running audio commentary with Scorsese at his frenetic best, embracing all aspects of the film’s production; several extensive and extremely informative documentaries on the making of the film that contain choice vintage and newer interviews with cast and crew; a stills gallery and theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)