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Cape Fear Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 22, 2011

    Cape Fear Review

    We’re back in the unforgiving grip of the maniacal Max Cady, folks. Back for more of his twisted brand of sweat-caked retribution and pent-up jailhouse fury. We’ve had a good look at how director J. Lee Thompson handled this tale of oppressive torment and deep-seated persecution with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck as the two staunch enemies in the classic 1962 version of John D. MacDonald’s thriller novel, The Executioners, but now it’s the turn of Martin Scorsese’s flamboyant, excessive and blackly comical adaptation of Cape Fear from 1991 in Universal's UK region-free BD release.

    You're gonna learn about loss.”

    After fourteen years banged-up for a horrific sexual assault, the pure white trash of Max Cady is freed and on the hunt for payback. He wants the man whose actions put him behind bars – the legal councillor, Sam Bowden, who was initially defending him, but who suppressed evidence to ensure that he would be sent down. Unethical maybe, but Sam knew that his client was a monster and couldn’t live with himself if Cady walked out of court after the vicious rape of a sixteen-year-old girl. Max didn’t just idle away his sentence, however. Oh, he got himself tattooed and pumped-iron like the rest of the jailbirds … but he also read a lot. Law books, mainly. And also the Bible. He worked out not only how his appointed defender purposely let him down, but also how to get back at him and to twist, bend and contort the law to his own ends, rendering his prey helpless in the process, and placing him and his family completely at his mercy. As his systematic campaign of torment, persecution and terrorising gains momentum, Sam tries everything in his power, legal or slightly less than legal, to keep Cady away. But Max is like a pit-bull. He simply won’t give up. But he’s too smart to walk into a trap and he won’t leave himself wide-open for the authorities either. And as he contrives to unhinge Sam’s self-respect and his sense of family devotion, the Bowdens begin to come apart at the seams. Max has found their weak spot and the chinks in their armour are legion.

    The story is controversial and dominated by themes of rape and empowerment. Thompson's film shocked because it focussed on the threat to women, notably Sam's 16-year daughter, and also because it revealed just how impotent the law could be in certain situations, and how a devious mind could, therefore, exploit it. Scorsese's take would have to work a little harder to shock audiences who had grown accustomed to witnessing characters thrust into terrifying scenarios and finding themselves abandoned by those supposed to protect them. And he would do it via two methods. Firstly, he would be explicit. What could only be hinted-at back in 1962 gets a full-throttle presentation in 1991. When the word “rape” could not even be uttered back then, and the despicable ordeal that one of Cady’s victims undergoes only revealed with a bruised face and a shockingly haunted look in the woman’s eyes, Scorsese brings to the fore, with uber-violence and a surprising welter of gore. Now Cady’s depredations have an even more visceral effect – I mean what good is that buffed-up body if it isn’t going to be put to barbaric use? And, secondly, he would grease the moral pole by having Sam's teenage daughter, Danielle (played by Juliette Lewis), actually respond to Max's hideous seduction techniques. And, in so doing, he would blur the lines and cause unsettling emotions in the viewer. Clever bugger. There are a great many directors who could have potentially helmed this remake – Spielberg was originally earmarked - but I doubt anyone other than Martin Scorsese would have had the courage, even by 1991, to have undertaken such a dreadful line of attack.

    And then, of course, his version of the story revels in its colourful glory … both visually, with its wild and sumptuous Technicolor cinematography, and psychologically, in its rich and varied shades of characterisation and comic-book zeal.

    De Niro had made a conscious effort to broaden out some of his roles with larger-than-life eccentricities. You’ve only to think of his Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, or Rupert Pupkin from The King Of Comedy, or even the closely observed psychosis of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. But here he was handed a character who seemed like an amalgamation of all three - and a ruthless, over-the-top part that was to die for. Mad Max Cady is one of the genre’s greatest bogeymen, a cold and implacable weapon of brutal intimidation, relentless savagery and nigh-on unstoppable resilience … and he is equipped with a cruel and calculating mind that knows no rest, nor no pity. Mitchum kept his bestial rapist/murderer grounded in reality, allowing him to walk and talk in the open and not to have anyone immediately point the finger and call the riot squad. De Niro certainly understands that times have changed and that he cannot simply essay what Mitchum did. So he takes the character and he remoulds him out of molten rock and injects him with nitro-glycerine, mutating the Bible-spouting ex-con into a dark angel of fury who’s got the gift of the gab, but a merciless killer’s streak. He can laugh and cajole with one breath, mock and taunt with the next. He can quote the scriptures and perform off-the-cuff psychological profiling. He can sweet-talk any damsel and be enormously self-deprecating. And all the time, he will be creeping insidiously ever closer, exposing every weakness, every fear, every corruptible desire in his intended target with the skill of a hypnotist-cum-surgeon. When Spielberg was still attached to the project, he had initially thought of Bill Murray to play Max. WOW! Can you imagine that? Personally, I can't begin to imagine how that interpretation would have turned out, but I would have loved to have seen, just the same.

    Did you call the police?”

    No I didn't call the police. What did you call them … slow, slobbery, sceptical ...”

    After watching the original version, it takes some adjusting to get used to Nick Nolte’s rascally, henpecked incarnation of Sam Bowden. Nolte is a tremendous actor, and someone who is capable of considerable depth and intensity, himself – which he will need as the film progresses. He has played the stoical hero before in The Deep, 48 Hrs. and Extreme Prejudice, and he has brought sensitivity and comedy to his roles in, respectively, Who’ll Stop The Rain and Down And Out In Beverly Hills. But he is also great at being afraid too, as his beleaguered lawyer makes clear once Cady proves that he can be anywhere at any time and outfox the so-called professionals attempting to shanghai him. He is rattled very early on after his first encounter, or rather reunion, with Max Cady. A lot of years have passed – nearly double the sentence that Mitchum’s incarnation had – and Cady has become a leaner, fitter, stronger guy, whilst Sam has softened and gained weight in the cosseted comfort of his liberty. Although Cady only uses this visual comparison glibly, we all know that he has immediately asserted physical dominion over his former counsellor. Whereas Gregory Peck conveyed his inner terrors very subtly, remaining strong and defiant with a calm and determined exterior, Nolte allows his panic to burn and simmer, making a twitchy, anxious wreck out of him. But Nolte also has such a gravelly demeanour, both in voice and appearance, as well as a prickly way of delivering his dialogue that it sometimes comes across as though he is overacting. He has a habit of repeating elements of the previous speaker’s lines as part of his reply and his rasping, staccato readings are pitched almost immediately at a place several notches above tetchy. Interestingly, he was also in Barbra Streisand's warmly received The Prince Of Tides, the same year, swapping high anxiety for something altogether softer and more romantic.

    Unlike the original version, which was definitely a battle of wits between two very intelligent and proud men, the newer adaptation has many skilled asides. This Sam Bowden is much less of a fighter than Peck, but then he has less to lose than his predecessor. He starts off in a tenuous position, with concerns on the domestic front that serve to undermine his power. His family is possessed of stronger, more realistic and contemporary personalities, and they have issues of their own. The “good circle” is already fractured and only needs a little push in the right place to come adrift completely. This removes the staunchly black-and-white moralistic fervour of the original and replaces it with an ever-shifting melange of allegiances. We know who we are rooting for, but we’re not backing them whole-heartedly. We sympathise with the Bowdens, but we don't necessarily like them all that much. This is a refreshing angle that opens up the parameters of cause and effect. When the family are so easy to exploit, so determined to fight amongst themselves, Max becomes the one straight arrow in the tournament. He doesn’t deviate from the path, doesn’t renege on his word. In short, he does what he says he’ll do … and that is a quality that the Bowdens don’t share. Whilst Scorsese allows De Niro to run away with the character of Cady to rowdy approval, his splintering of our empathies with the “nice guys” is an extremely rewarding conceit. In fairness, however, he knows that in today’s world, audiences simply won’t buy into apple-pie values and doting dads. Nowadays, the threat seems just as likely to come from within as it does from without.

    But Scorsese’s take does come unstuck. This is altogether grander, and more operatic. It is richer in emotion, heightening everything and everyone to almost ludicrous levels of paranoia, madness and anxiety. The sex and violence are upped to comic-book standards, but this only seems to lessen their effect and, come the exciting finale out in the raging torrents of Cape Fear, we are less and less shocked by each act of brutality. The much-ballyhooed scene in which Cady ensnares the gullible Danielle into thinking she has a special meeting with her new drama teacher and, amid such splendidly sly spiel as to veritably “deflower” her, verbally and metaphorically, coerce her into sucking his finger with lascivious naïveté is, as far as I’m concerned, utterly ridiculous. As well acted as this testing sequence is – and both Lewis and De Niro really go for it – the notion and the set-up is so far-fetched that it elevates Cady into an almost omnipotent force. Allowing him to access Danielle directly on her own phone-line to determine a clandestine rendezvous and then to hold court over an otherwise deserted basement theatre in the high school … and then to use his verbal guile to win her over, even though she has realised precisely who he is by this stage, in a perversely empowered game of seduction is just asking too much. Don’t misunderstand me, though … within the structure of this interpretation the sequence is electrifying, being both sinister and wickedly alluring at the same time, as well as being incredibly blackly amusing as well (forget Angel Heart, this is where De Niro reveals that he really is the Devil). It is just that, at this point, the plot has unmistakably left the rails and become something entirely different. Harsher, and more violent it may be from here on in … but Cady and the Bowdens have now become cartoonic ciphers in the demonic struggle. Although we could have done so before, we can no longer take anything that happens seriously. When Mitchum made his move on Sam’s teenage daughter in Thompson’s original, it was subtle and actually very misleading, the scene in question – which this sequence massively expands upon – dealt out with inspired misdirection and a red herring or two. This just explodes the situation so emphatically that it would take an octopus to re-gather all the fragments of plot-reality again.

    Well you can trust me, 'cause I'm the Do-Right Man.”

    Considering all the testosterone soaking up the screen, the ladies acquit themselves with a sort of dedicated victimisation. All three go the extra mile as they each fall for the viper-like charms of Cady, aiming for the stars he promises them and getting dragged through hell instead. Of the three, it is Juliette Lewis who shines the brightest. I will admit that she is playing a very irritating character – and she’s playing so her well that she will get on your nerves – but this cannot detract from what is an incredible performance from the then-17 year old. That scene in the school – yep, the one that I just criticised – is a magnificent showcase for improvisation and in-character interplay. That De Niro was flying by the seat of his pants isn’t going to surprise anyone, but to learn that Lewis was just going with the flow and reacting to the seasoned veteran with fresh, honest-to-goodness, real-time responses is nothing short of amazing. Finding these naturalistic touches so impressive, Scorsese actually went with the first take of the scene, and the result, as illogical as I may find it, is even more disturbing.

    Jessica Lange is an exceptional actress. She even made me believe that she had fallen in love with a fifty-foot gorilla in her alleged “debut” in the ’76 take on King Kong. As the wife, her Leigh Bowden is an agitated, cynical and distrusting harridan. She seems to love and hate her husband in equal measure. Highly strung and deeply suspicious of Sam's “friendship” with a female work colleague, she whiles away her daytime with “those pesky little sketches”, scornful of her husband's ineffective abilities to keep them safe, and seemingly ripe for Max to wrestle out of complacency for some sort of punishing adventure. That Lange doesn't allow the more obvious traits of the character to come thrusting to the surface exposes a backbone that Leigh, herself, probably didn't realise she had. The double-act of Lange and Lewis gets put through the wringer during the tortuous houseboat sequence, although it is creditable to note that both put up much more of a fight than their predecessors as Cady's atrocities mount in severity and spiral out of control.

    Even Ilieana Douglas (an acclaimed writer and director, herself), who assumes the pitiable role of Cady-candy that the delectable Barrie Chase had in the original, sears the screen with vulnerable sexuality and pathetic gullibility. This time, the good-time-gal has been swapped for a ditzy, infatuated legal clerk with the hots for Sam. Her indiscretions and heart-on-sleeve approach is precisely the sort of weakness that Max can exploit. And he does so with incredible savagery. His despoiling of Sam’s secret confidante is the film’s hardcore session of bestial rape and Lecter-like flesh-chomping. The “pick-up” is a wonderful device because we know, right from the word go, what is going to happen, but we are absolutely powerless to halt it. The sight of her bandaged and ravaged form in the hospital later on is almost as powerful as the haunted look in Chase's eyes back in 1962. Douglas had worked for Scorsese on his segment of New York Stories and The Last Temptation Of Christ, and even appeared in the classic Goodfellas, but I doubt she fully expected the ferocity with which her character would be subjected to this time out.

    The expansion of the character of Kersek – who was nothing more than a doomed deputy in the original’s final act – into a fully-fledged private detective played by Joe Don Baker is a nice touch. Suddenly, Scorsese has amalgamated the deputy and the gumshoe previously portrayed by Telly Savalas into one bogusly heroic persona. Baker has a whale of a time playing the overweight, over-confident, ulcer-suffering “protector” of decency. His dialogue is contrived, but priceless. Nobody could ever come up with as many clichés, tag-lines and smart-assed retorts as this buffoon. Well, nobody except for Max, of course – and behind Max’s forever cute ‘n’ clever deliveries lies the methodical, penetrating measure of perfectly lucid insanity. Max plays it for laughs but we know he’s operating on a completely different level. Kersek thinks he’s seen it all before and acts out of blasé and flagrant contempt for the real situation developing around him. Baker is terrific in the part – out of shape, out of ideas and just plain out of luck, yet bold as brass and ignorant of the mockery that surrounds him and his pretentious defensive tactics.

    The final epic set-piece out on the houseboat is appreciably lent the unparalleled suspense of a raging storm and a beautifully metaphorical whirlpool – a swirling maelstrom of dervish-like insanity that Thompson admits he wishes he’d thought of for his original – but, ironically in spite of the galvanising torments and thunderous violence, the actual confrontation becomes far too vastly over-egged and operatic. Strangulations, head-stompings, incinerated faces and threatened female flesh vie for supremacy with the chaos of a hell-spawned tempest and the biblical rhetoric of Cady’s ripe-to-bursting benediction of hate. Scorsese takes Mitchum’s character and mates it with Freddy Krueger to create some infernal offspring that could never exist in this or any world. Mitchum’s Cady could come strolling down any street in any town or city. De Niro’s has been birthed in a cinematic test-tube, drowned in steroids and catapulted into the stratosphere like a human-shaped missle. With his loud Hawaiian shirts, flash red sports car and long slicked-back hair, he is the complete opposite of covert. Whether he is sitting in a diner and reading the Bible, blithely bouncing back legalities, or being the only person finding Dennis Dugan's Problem Child amusing, he is the centre of attention, the focal point in any frame and the perpetual eye of the storm. When Scorsese seats him atop the Bowden’s garden wall to nonchalantly announce his presence to his victims, an obfuscating firework display heralds him with demented De Mille-style showmanship. Likewise, the big Fourth of July street parade in which Sam, across the road from Cady, spots him in the crowd and wades across to have a very public remonstration with him because he thinks the callous fiend is looking at his wife. Cady is wearing big sunglasses and he’s just one of a sea of spectators. Ticker-tape and majorettes are between him and Sam … so just how does Sam know that he is eye-balling his wife? It is paranoia writ large. It doesn’t need to make sense … but it is all part of the nuclear effervescence of Cady’s super-enlarged aura.

    Mitchum didn't need such embellishments. His Cady was an ogre, but he was real. De Niro pumps-up the volume and the primal machismo to make his Cady hyper-real.

    To this end, Scorsese ups the quasi-supernatural angle too, although this is merely for mischievously playful effect and, as daft as it ultimately is to have Cady and his car suddenly and magically vanish from Sam’s sight from the parking lot outside the diner, and his cigar-puffing figure crazily evaporate from a rubbed-eye white-negative in the Bowdens' boudoir, it remains visually intriguing and sublimely atmospheric. Perhaps his most effective and heart-lurching trick is actually a pure homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho – think about “Mrs.” Bates and you should recognise the visual steal ... just a second too late to do anything about it, though.

    The cinematography from lens-wizard Freddie Francis is, as you would expect, utterly superb … but it is also overly elaborate, to say the least. This was the first time that Scorsese had shot in anamorphic 2.35:1 and he revelled in the imaginative freedom that it gave him so, I suppose we should forgive him his excesses. The film is filled with clever tricks – sly movements, mysterious transitions, fabulous lighting, intricate angles and framing, the use of white negatives and wacky reveals (Max hanging upside-down from an exercise bar as he verbally ensnares Danielle over the phone, for instance, or the weird falling into-and-out-of the river that Sam performs) – and the cumulative effect of all this photographic panache becomes, I think, ultimately distracting and much too self-conscious for its own good. The film looks astonishing, of course, but it becomes too stylish for the sake of it, almost as though Scorsese and Francis are trying to enrapture us and place us in a garishly surreal trance, possibly allowing Cady’s funked-up and psychedelic wardrobe tastes to assume control over the film's entire aesthetic, transforming the story into a huge and gaudy kaleidoscope of colour and motion. One whip-fast pan in Kersek’s office serves absolutely no purpose at all, and just seems thrown in for the sheer sake of having the camera perform. Critics love to slather over Saul Bass’s fantastical title sequence, but I’ve always found it a little mundane considering the avant-garde approach that Scorsese actually utilises for the movie itself. But I’m being picky now … so let’s get back to the good stuff.

    I am like God, and God like me. I am as LARGE as God. He is as SMALL as I. He cannot above me, nor I beneath Him be!”

    Max’s awesome retaliation to the ambush by Kersek’s goon-squad is bold and ferocious. His taunting of the hiding Sam, whom he suspects has been lurking in the shadows to watch the beating take place, is a beautiful moment of simmering defiance. “Counsellor! Come out, come out, wherever you are!” His goading going on for a couple of tense minutes as he edges nearer to Nolte’s shadowy cubby-hole, and then, brilliantly, De Niro peters-out the idiosyncrasies and just gives up the cat-and-mouse game with a gorgeously mood-breaking, “Ahhh, f*ck it …” The towering suspense of the teddy-bear signal that Kersek sets up in the Bowden house to alert him to any Cady intrusions is a nicely protracted evolution of the “batten-down the hatches” montage of Sam locking-up his premises after nightfall. Cady’s battered and bruised act for the judge, played by another cameo from the original by Martin Balsam, looking mighty convincingly uncomfortable. The psycho’s tenacious cross-country stealth-pursuit, bedecked in weird tree-bark camouflage and adopted from a very unusual vantage point. The rock-slinging fury of “two lawyers” slugging it out in a muddy deluge is highly amusing yet a great release of burning aggression at the same time. The final cave-man-like duel is almost enough to make up for those shoddy miniatures of the houseboat dredging-up against a symbolically immovable object.

    Scorsese not only brings back Peck, Mitchum, who as Lt. Elgart has the great line “I don't know whether to look at him or read him” as Cady's tattooed physique is revealed in a police room, and Balsam for respectful, smirk-inducing cameos, but he also employs Bernard Herrmann’s spine-tingling score as well. Only this time, because of the alterations of the plot and the timing of some sequences, he has the great Elmer Bernstein (The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven) arrange and orchestrate the classic score to fit the film. Fans of Herrmann will spot the inclusion of a cue from his rejected score for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain – the doomed project that brought their professional relationship, after such classics as Marnie, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, to a bitter end. The four demonic notes of the main theme F-C-B-F are still staggeringly menacing, the insidious build-up of Cady’s campaign an unnerving delight. Bernstein had an unusual take on the score's power. He actually believed that Herrmann's music seemed to serve this version much better than Thompson's, citing that Herrmann was writing music for something that the original film didn't specifically have. I'm not sure about this. I love and respect Bernstein enormously, he has composed some of my absolute favourite scores, but Herrmann always knew exactly what he was doing. To him, Cady was a monster. Pure and simple. So he composed his score for a horror film, which I believe it to be. Mitchum's Cady was the foulest degenerate that Peck's Sam Bowden had ever encountered, but he needed the music to make him a monster. Which, of course, is why it continues to work so well with Scorsese's picture. De Niro's Cady is still a monster … but without this chilling motif, he would lose some of that Satanic power. But the new Cady is also, perversely, more likeable than Mitchum's, and definitely far funnier, which, in a way, actually means that Herrmann's score probably fits the original interpretation better, rather than how Bernstein saw it.

    Along with his two-thirds-magnificent, one-third obvious letdown Shutter Island, the remake of Cape Fear sits somewhat awkwardly in the canon of Martin Scorsese, it seems to deviate from his conventionally gritty, and more working-class path by being highly extroverted, out-and-out deranged and knowingly pantomimic, yet also wilfully studio-pandered. But it also carries a lot of his hallmarks too, and if it is the wild card in his pack, it is a largely triumphant one. He allowed his screen alter-ego to roar out with what has been his last truly memorable performance, and he made some intriguing modifications to the classic plot, nudging it into the present day and collapsing the moral stronghold of virtually all the characters embroiled in what is, essentially, a gruesome power-play. As with Mitchum, it is De Niro who steals the show – but then, how could it be otherwise? – and his Max Cady is a leviathan of grotesquery, both in what he says and what he does. As much as we hate and fear him, he transfixes us through the screen, his persona burning a hole in our minds … and, damn him to hell, we actually come to enjoy having him around. He is colourful, funny and vibrant. Like the Joker, he is a maliciously addictive clown prince of crime. Articulate, deranged and yet dustily down to earth with that comedic Southern drawl. “Ooh, I got the all-over fidgets on that one!” he shivers with mock-unease when Kersek puts the pretentious pinch on him. Although I find Robert Mitchum's version the more believable and, consequently, the more frightening, few could argue that De Niro's abhorrent, misogynistic white trash gargoyle stays in the mind for longer, carving out a psychotic pillar for himself in the unhallowed Halls of Horror.

    Martin Scorsese's delirious adaptation of Cape Fear is a brutal excursion over on to the wrong side of the tracks. Violent, funny, hideous and thrilling, it doesn't mock the law anywhere near as much as the original, but it deliberately plays mind games and mixes-up the usual conventions of right and wrong, hero and villain. It is also wildly entertaining, and shows a director and star kicking-back and having a whole lot of fun.