BLOGGER'S NOTE: On this date 20 years ago, Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear opened. To mark the occasion, I'm posting the original review I wrote on the film when it was released, which was prior to me being able to see the original film. While Scorsese's film overall is superior to the 1962 original directed by J. Lee Thompson, it's distinctly weaker in one respect: De Niro's wildly over-the-top performance as Max Cady doesn't hold a candle to Robert Mitchum's portrayal of the psycho in the original.
Reading reviews for Cape Fear, it quickly becomes obvious that the film confuses the critical jury. Some label it a comedy, others a thriller that fails to measure up to Martin Scorsese's earlier work and still others spot signs of misogyny.
All of these assessments are true but, reservations aside, Scorsese's remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear still turns out to be one of the year's most compelling films. As Wagstaff so accurately said after seeing it, "It's funny, it's sick — it's the best David Lynch movie Lynch never made."
The analogy is an apt one with, horror interrupted by nonsequiturs and scenes shot for grotesque and eccentric effect. Scorsese's film has fun with the audience, but at its expense, rubbing its collective nose in both the sleaze it portrays and the techniques he employs. He's not playing the audience like a piano — he's treating them the way Pete Townshend used to treat his guitars.
The story concerns a newly released convict's revenge. In the 1962 version, the family was present as wholesome and exemplary. Updated for the 1990s, the family is dysfunctional and the convict isn't just a psychopath, he's a self-righteous force of nature.
Frequent Scorsese cohort Robert De Niro stars as Max Cady, the convicted rapist who couldn't read when he was sentenced but who taught himself in prison using law books. During this process, he discovers that his public defender suppressed evidence that might have acquitted him.
Nick Nolte portrays Sam Bowden, the philandering lawyer who misrepresented Cady, Jessica Lange plays Sam's embittered wife who won't let him forget his infidelities and newcomer Juliette Lewis proves quite impressive as the Bowdens' 15-year-old daughter.
Lewis' character holds the key to the film's psychological aspects as a teen who resents her parents and finds herself attracted by Cady's sexual power. It's disturbing, but the best scene involves a verbal violation of the girl by De Niro masquerading as a drama teacher. Set on a stage with a fairy tale backdrop, the scene plays on every conceivable tension in a way that left the audience uncharacteristically silent.
De Niro doesn't just portray Max Cady, he goes for broke. He doesn't just chew the scenery, he swallows it whole, aided and abetted by Scorsese who visually gives Cady a good dose of pyrotechnics on his way through the camera and into the viewer's face.
Scorsese best exemplifies his attitude toward the audience in a very funny early scene set in a movie theater. Cady props his feet up on the seat, smokes a large, smelly cigar and laughs a mechanical laugh at Problem Child. Only a director as brilliant as Scorsese could make good use of any part of Problem Child, seemingly questioning the audience's taste not only for making that film a hit but because he knows they'll enjoy his own exercise in sadomasochism as well.
What makes analyzing Cape Fear difficult is coming to a conclusion about whether or not the end justify his means. Portions of Cape Fear are as good as anything Scorsese has done but the film as a whole leaves something to be desired. All Scorsese's best work, even though the films might not be considered heartwarming, did convey the sense of a great artist's heart pumping beneath the surface.
Cape Fear contains all his usual themes — guilt, religious allegory — but it's colder. It's as if Scorsese not only singles out Lynch for discussion but all films, including his own, and he's not there to praise them. In that way, the film feels as if as Cady is taking revenge on the Bowdens, Scorsese is settling scores with the film industry. When the first notes of Elmer Bernstein's reworking of Bernard Herrmann's wonderfully overblown score from the original play, you get the sense that Scorsese has embarked on a satirical sucker punch disguised as a conventional thriller.
In Love and Death, Diane Keaton says sex without love is an empty and meaningless experience to which Woody Allen replies, "Yes, but as empty and meaningless experiences go, it's one of the best." The same can be said of Cape Fear. Scorsese without the passion of personal vision does lack depth, but even a somewhat questionable film by Scorsese tops most other movies around.