Some assessments of art, cinematic or otherwise, are only possible with the passage of time. Call me a true cynic, but I’m instantly weary when reading the back jackets of Blu-ray releases of movies made within the past year, already declared ‘an instant classic’ by some terribly overzealous but not very observant film critic. A classic, by its very definition, is of another vintage. It continues to resonate with the public in some sort of meaningful way despite the evolution of style, cultural morays and personal tastes. Hence ‘a classic’ that was true then, remains true today and likely to remain true for a good many tomorrows yet to come. One of the barometers – though not the only one – I have used when judging movies as ‘classics’ is how often well-intentioned, though ultimately feeble attempts have been made in the intervening decades to emulate, recreate, or at the very least, reference an original for its magic as a cultural touchstone, or perhaps, simply to remake it altogether. Surely, any movie considered worthy of a remake is important enough to be classified as a benchmark of American movie-making artistry.
Such is definitely the case with J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962); a harrowing thriller – considered something of a minor, if undeniably popular, movie in its day, remade with more potently sinister accoutrements and perverse plot twists by Martin Scorsese in 1991. Thompson’s original is hampered by the Production Code’s sanitization of certain events dramatically evoked in John D. MacDonald’s pulp paperback, ‘The Executioners’ – renamed by the film’s producer/star Gregory Peck – presumably because the original title was just too dower for audiences back then.
Peck, who had been one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic leading men of the mid-1940s and early 1950s had, by 1960, established his own independent production company and was actively seeking projects while shooting The Guns of Navarone (1961) under Thompson’s direction. Evidently, Peck and Thompson’s working relationship was a pleasant one, carried over to the set of Cape Fear when the director agreed to helm this project, shot partly in Savannah, Georgia but also on sound stages at Universal City, CA.
Reflecting on Scorsese’s remake – a rare improvement (liberated from Hollywood’s self-governing censorship) – one is immediately struck by the complexity of screenwriter Wesley Strick’s cast of characters; the devious/womanizing lawyer played by Nick Nolte and his sexually deviant daughter, Danielle, intractably realized by Juliette Lewis coming immediately to mind. Indeed, James R. Webb’s Bowden family unit seem passé and occasionally contrite by direct comparison. This, however, is only glaringly evident if one has already seen the remake or chooses – unfairly - to foist our contemporary esthetics and sensibilities upon the original: a fool’s errand at best because movies undeniably date themselves in all sorts of stylistic ways.
Webb’s screenplay plays to the strengths of his cast: Gregory Peck’s inbred morality as a human being; Robert Mitchum’s rugged penchant for lawless experimentation. In reorganizing and fleshing out the original story, Strick accomplished what few screenwriters of his ilk – or any other, for that matter – are capable of; making revisions that speak to a contemporary audience without fundamentally tampering with the overall impact, or even the fond collective memories shared for this 1962 classic. And make no mistake; Thompson’s Cape Fear remains a classic, just as Scorsese’s remake is steadily on the fast track to becoming one.
The narrative structure of the two films is basically the same. In the original Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) resurfaces after serving eight years for rape. In the remake, the suggestion is made that his victim was approximately the same age as attorney Sam Bowden’s (Gregory Peck) daughter. The original makes no comment, but Cady’s predilection in 1962 seems more inclined toward brutalizing adult women of a particular sexual looseness rather than children. In the original, Sam witnessed Cady’s attack as a bystander, intervenes, and then testifies at trial, thereby resulting in Cady’s conviction and incarceration. In Scorsese’s remake Sam’s involvement in Cady’s case is no less gallant, though much more ignoble. Nolte’s Sam was Cady’s defense attorney at the rape trial who buried a report on the victim’s promiscuity to ensure that Cady would go to jail for raping her. Indeed, the motive for Mitchum’s Cady to pursue his aberrant vendetta against Peck’s Sam seems rather weak – again, by direct comparison.
In the interim, Peck’s Sam has become an attorney at law with a loving wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen) and devoted daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin); the family unit very antiseptic and idealized. In Scorsese’s remake Sam’s home life is decidedly less than perfect; what with his own prior infidelities having transformed his wife into a venomous shrew and his daughter, still naïve, but tantalized by promiscuous fantasies that Cady is only too eager to play upon and exploit. None of these inner machinations inside the Bowden household are ever explored or even hinted at in the original. Thus, Cady’s influence on the Bowdens remains external – he preys upon their fears and anxieties from without, whereas in the remake he massages their inner demons so that they begin to turn on each other.
In both films, Cady begins his assault on the Bowden clan by poisoning their beloved family dog with strychnine; an act merely implied, but thoroughly in keeping with Cady’s penchant for sustained violence. Unable to prove Cady’s involvement, Sam turns to Police Chief Mark Dutton (Martin Balsam) for advice. Dutton treads heavily, using tactics bordering on police coercion. Cady hires his own attorney, Dave Grafton (Jack Kruschen) to pursue the matter. In one of Scorsese’s inspired strokes of genius, in the remake Max Cady (played by Robert DeNiro) hires an attorney (Gregory Peck) who presents his ‘unfair treatment from police chief (Robert Mitchum) at a hearing presided over by Martin Balsam. Talk about inspired artistic verisimilitude and homage!
In the original, Dutton encourages Sam to hire private investigator Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas) to shadow Cady and gain evidence of his complicity in the killing of the dog. Instead, Sievers arrives at the apartment of Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase) – a gadabout barfly who has been sexually brutalized by Cady. Sievers does everything he can to convince Diane to press charges, thus ensuring Cady’s return to prison for at least six months. But Diane has wisely elects to get out of town instead, realizing what sort of animal both she and the police are dealing with. Once again, Scorsese manages to improve upon this incident in his remake. The victim, renamed Lori Davis (Illeana Douglas) is glimpsed during a flirtatious rendezvous with Sam first, thereby making Cady’s memorable cheek-biting assault of Lori a perilous prelude to the terrors about to befall the Bowdens.
In both versions, Sam’s next course of action proves to be an ill-planned misfire. At Sam’s behest, Sievers hires a trio of thugs to beat up Cady with chains and bats. Instead, Cady gets the better of his attackers, showing up in court the next day, bandaged and bruised, with Grafton to implicate Sam in the assault and urge for his disbarment. Herein, Scorsese’s remake inserts a shocking sequence not in the original. Sam and his private investigator set a trap for Cady. Sam fakes an out of town business trip but is actually hidden in the trunk of his own car, returning home with the intension to kill Cady when he reappears. Instead, Cady murders the private investigator and the Bowden’s housekeeper while the family is asleep upstairs.
The original offers nothing quite so gruesome, though arguably nevertheless terrifying. Sam stakes his wife and daughter at a houseboat moored off a secluded dock with a cottage on Cape Fear River. After faking out Cady, Sam tells Sievers to deliberately lure him to their hiding place for the ambush. Sam hurries to the houseboat with a sheriff’s deputy, Kersek (Page Slattery), promptly drowned by Cady who has, of course, followed Sam to the family’s retreat. After discovering Kersek’s body Sam tells Nancy to lock herself in the cottage and call the local authorities for help. Cady sets the houseboat adrift with Peggy inside, then momentarily terrorizes her with the prospect of rape.
The rouse, however, is merely to lure Sam away from the cottage, thereby leaving Nancy vulnerable. The timeline herein is just a tad wonky. For in the obvious minutes it has taken for Cady to untie the houseboat, terrorize Peggy, then jump ship and swim back to shore to attack Nancy, she has inexplicably been unable to reach the authorities by telephone. Cady enters and takes the girl hostage, but Sam resurfaces to save his daughter. He and Cady do battle in the swampy waters and Sam realizes he is not a murderer. He keeps Cady at bay and at gunpoint after wounding him in the leg. The film ends with the Bowdens en route back to their ‘normal’ lives.
In Scorsese’s remake the showdown between Cady and Sam reaches its penultimate climax during a violent storm that capsizes the houseboat. Cady, who has been chained to one of the boat’s railing is grounded to a piece of surviving wreckage. Sam reaches for a sizable rock to bludgeon him. But at the last possible moment Mother Nature intervenes, dragging the remaining planks with Cady to the bottom of Cape Fear River where he does, in fact, drown.
Cape Fear (1962) should never be directly compared with its remake. There is sufficient ‘water under the bridge’, as it were, between both versions and enough clever revisions in Scorsese’s remake so that each film is a standalone work of its own time and merit. Clearly Thompson would have liked to explore the violent aspects of his story more, and, in viewing Cape Fear today one is immediately struck by how incredibly tame most of it is. The audience is expected to rely on innuendo and implied despicable acts to generate its own chills.
One can blame the Production Code – partly – for Cape Fear’s more subdued approach. But lest we forget that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) preceded Cape Fear by nearly two years; with that film’s diabolic slaughter in the shower and damn near progressive revelation of a congenial mama’s boy as homicidal transvestite. Viewed in this light, Cape Fear is decidedly watered down as a thriller. Gregory Peck does his best as the proud family man forced into an impossible moral dilemma by a demonic influence from his past, but the flashier part undeniably goes to Robert Mitchum, who is fairly bone-chilling throughout. In the end, however, Mitchum’s glossy-eyed leering isn’t quite enough to carry the picture, and we’re left with what ultimately boils down to an inevitable conflict between Sam and Cady.
The women of the piece are milquetoast window dressing at best. Thompson had wanted Haley Mills for Nancy – an assignment she was unable to accept, citing prior commitments at the Disney Studios. Regrettably, Lori Martin is a lethal replacement; cardboard cutout at best and a penciled in stick figure at her worst with absolutely zero emotional content to sell what is supposed to be genuine fear while being stalked by a serial rapist. Polly Bergen fairs only slightly better, her most satisfying moment coming late in the movie, during a scene where Peggy and Nancy pensively sit inside the houseboat and listen to the looming sound of an approaching speedboat that ultimately turns out to be carrying Sam and Kersek.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Cape Fear is a classic. It doesn’t work on every level but there’s enough here to remain perennially satisfying. While I personally tend to prefer the Scorsese remake myself, with its flashier set pieces and moodier conflict within the family unit, I cannot deny the original or its stars (both Peck and Mitchum two of my very favorites) their place in the sun – or darkness between the light, as it were. Cape Fear is good but not great.
We could say the same thing about Universal’s new Blu-ray. Vast improvements have been made over the previously issued DVD, particularly in contrast and fine detail that resurrect Sam Leavitt’s deep focus cinematography in 1080p with striking aplomb. Close ups reveal craggy skin textures in Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam; the Savannah locations looking eerily damp, moody and unsettling. But there’s a modicum of edge enhancement that intrudes midway through the film, wreaking havoc on the fender detail of Sam’s car as he pulls up to his house, and then most every vertical surface inside the house in an adjoining scene. There are also a few instances of the same problem later on, the dense foliage along Cape Fear shimmering in and out as the camera pans past the houseboat and cottage to give us an establishing shot and/or lay of the land.
The audio, particularly Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score, is first rate. Scorsese wisely chose to keep Herrmann’s original theme music in his remake – with minor modifications made by Elmer Bernstein to extend Herrmann’s originals. Extras are limited to an all too brief, and unceremoniously chopped off, ‘making of’ featurette that ends right in the middle of director Thompson providing a recollection. We also get a careworn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)