A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991)

I don't think I've ever seen J. Lee Thompson's 1962 version of this film, but nothing about Scorsese's version shows me why a director of his skill and stature thought it necessary to remake it. I'm even more puzzled to learn that Steven Spielberg originally planned to film it, but when he decided it wasn't exactly his thing, he traded with Scorsese for the rights to make Schindler's List (1993). (Which in turn makes me wonder what Scorsese's version of List would have been like: Would Robert De Niro have played Oskar Schindler or Amon Goeth?) It's also puzzling that anyone really needed to remake this specific material (James R. Webb's screenplay based on a novel by John D. MacDonald, revised here by Wesley Strick) when the premise of the film, an ex-con takes revenge on the man he blames for sending him to prison, is such a staple of melodrama. The only real twist to the premise is that the object of revenge is not the prosecuting attorney or the judge who sentenced Max Cady (De Niro), but his defense attorney, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who was so revolted by Cady's rape and battery of a young woman that he suppressed evidence of the woman's promiscuity, which he might have used at least to get a lighter sentence for Cady, who learned about the suppressed evidence when he studied law in prison. The Scorsese version is certainly watchable -- Scorsese has yet to make a film that isn't -- but it is what it is: a melodrama ratcheted up to the heights. Scorsese's direction is literally in your face: He has Freddie Francis film some dialogue scenes in closeups, with the camera slowly pulling in even closer on faces as the characters talk. The one time Scorsese decides not to do this is actually the best scene in the film: when Cady talks with Bowden's daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis) on the stage of her high school's theater. Here the distance the camera keeps from them at first allows for a tension that grows in intensity, until finally the camera draws nearer. De Niro pulls out all the stops in a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, but at times verges on self-parody, especially the Southern (?) accent that he adopts (and occasionally drops). Nolte and Jessica Lange (as Leigh, Bowden's wife) are fine, as one expects them to be, but the best performance is given by Lewis, who was 18 and makes Danielle a credible 15-year-old, her rebellious streak reinforcing her attraction to Cady at the same time that she knows to be wary of him. It earned her an Oscar nomination and launched her career. The casting of Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, the Cady and Bowden of the first film, in cameo roles is just a gimmick, and not an especially effective one.