Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Heath Holland On...Cape Fear vs. Cape Fear

by Heath Holland
Welcome to the first “versus” column! From time to time I’m going to take a look at movies that have been remade and see how the two versions hold up against each other, examine the pros and cons, and decide if one film gets the edge over the other. For this inaugural edition, I’m looking at Cape Fear, a revenge thriller set in North Carolina based on the novel The Executioners by John D. McDonald.

Watching both of these films in a short span of time made for an interesting experiment and I was surprised at some of the ways that the movies are really similar but also completely different. Both versions depict Max Cady, a convicted rapist and pedophile who has been released from prison after many years, as he seeks to intimidate and slowly unnerve Sam Bowden, the lawyer who put him away. Both films also tell essentially the exact same story, but the devil is in the details.
The 1962 original film was directed by J. Lee Thompson, the director of The Guns of Navarone and, later, two Planet of the Apes sequels. It stars Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady. Mitchum approaches the role of the ex-con with a menacing confidence and casual ease that only intensifies the aura of danger around him. It’s that calm and cool demeanor in the light of what he’s done and been through that makes the performance so unnerving, and also a subtle performance that we don’t see as much of as I’d like to in modern studio releases. Here’s an actor completely living inside of a role, wearing it like a comfortable suit. Who are you more afraid of, the raving maniac or the quiet guy smoking who just smiled and winked at you?

Gregory Peck, on the other hand, is doing the same thing that he seems to do in every movie I’ve ever seen him in, which is not much at all. I like several Gregory Peck movies and recognize that he’s contributed to some classics (this film included), but the only performance he seems really capable of is “Lincolnesque.” I don’t find him to be particularly believable or sympathetic; he’s just sort of there as a passenger in every film I’ve watched him in. I guess I’m not much of a Gregory Peck fan.
Despite the status quo performance from Peck, the 1962 version of Cape Fear is a study in how to build tension and ratchet up anxiety. As Bowden’s family is drawn into increasing danger, Peck’s character becomes more unnerved and desperate, becoming capable of violence himself. His wife (Polly Bergen) and teenage daughter (Lori Martin) become targets as well, and though the movie never explicitly tells us that Cady would rape them both, what’s on his mind is obvious enough. Both actresses get to deliver some excellent and brave performances: Polly Bergen basically allows herself to be physically and sexually assaulted on camera. 14-year-old Lori Martin had such intense scenes with Mitchum that she would later confess to nightmares about the experience for weeks.

In spite of the graphic nature of the story, the audience is given a lot of credit to fill in the gaps and arrive at certain conclusions without having their hands held or having things blatantly stated. In this aspect, this film owes a huge debt to Hitchcock while never quite achieving the heights of that director’s more celebrated work.

I also want to make a point to mention the cinematography, which makes excellent use of shadow and light in the way that only black and white films seemed able to do. Though it came years after the noir heyday, that’s exactly what Cape Fear often feels like. There are stills from this movie that I would be proud to have hanging on my wall.

1962’s Cape Fear isn’t a long film; it wraps up at 105 minutes and yet it tells you everything you need to know and still has time for a half-hour climax. If the movie were any longer it would detract from the tension and pacing and works best as presented. On my recent viewing I found myself to be clenching my fists and gritting my teeth nervously. It’s a nearly perfect little thriller.
Scorsese’s 1991 remake is tediously faithful in many ways (it uses the score from the original, for instance, and also features cameos from Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck), but it’s also strangely different and full of choices I don’t understand. I thought I liked this version of Cape Fear, but I’m struggling with some of the decisions that were made. On paper I find Robert De Niro as Max Cady to be inspired casting, and to a lesser degree I’m also on board with Nick Nolte taking the role of the lawyer Sam Bowden because I think he’s vanilla, too. Jessica Lange is an actress that I like a lot in certain roles but isn’t given much to do here. Lastly, rounding out the cast is Juliette Lewis as Bowden’s daughter Danielle, who has WAY more to do here than her predecessor, Lori Martin, in a change I’m not at all sure I’m okay with.

There are several other changes, as well: the 1962 version had Max Cady serving eight years in jail for an unspecified rape, while the remake has him in the pokey for 14 years for the rape of a 16-year-old girl. Cady has also gone from being a man seething in quiet rage to being a borderline madman who is covered in religious tattoos and built like a brick house. Scorsese chose to incorporate elements of another Mitchum performance, Night of the Hunter, to make Cady even more unhinged. Also, Sam Bowden and his wife are no longer happily married; Bowden is in the early stages of an affair with another woman. I assume this choice was made because NO ONE was happily married in 1991, right?

But by far the oddest change is the role that Bowden’s daughter plays in the remake. While Lori Martin was only 14 and depicted as a pre-sexually aware adolescent, Juliette Lewis was 18 (though her character was not) and is depicted as having a sexual awakening brought on by Cady’s seduction. This is all the more disturbing when one discovers that Juliette Lewis really did develop an attraction to De Niro, who is 30 years her elder.
It was always De Niro’s performance that drew me to this film and it really is memorable. I read that the actor worked out until he was down to 3% body fat and that he achieved the creepy southern accent by driving around the south and asking normal people to read lines into a tape recorder so he could memorize their accent and delivery. I even read that he paid thousands of dollars to his dentist to make his teeth look messed up and had real tattoos administered with vegetable dyes so that they would fade after a few months. On one hand, this is an admirable foray into method acting. On the other, it’s a bit much.

Here’s the thing: what De Niro is doing in this movie is so big that it now draws me out of the movie. This was always what I considered to be a “powerhouse performance” (and it is) but what Mitchum does feels so much more appropriate for the story and so much creepier. Mitchum’s Cady has dead eyes and seems capable of the worst violence while feeling nothing. We see him hurt people and he does it without uttering a word or showing a single emotion. De Niro’s Cady might kill you, but he’s going to preach and deliver three pages of dialog first. He screams and chews scenery and quotes bible verses at the top of his voice like he’s playing for a critic in the back row of a community theater. He’s like a Bond villain, and if this were a Bond movie then I’d have no complaints. For this story, however, it feels gaudy and tacky in a movie that seems to relish in being both of those things.
I don’t mean to be overly negative about Scorsese’s Cape Fear because it’s not a really a bad movie; I do wonder why a director like Scorsese would take on the remake of a classic a year after Goodfellas, though. In the special features on the disc, the writer says that this was not meant to be a Scorsese movie while Scorsese admits to not wanting to do the movie. Spielberg was originally attached to direct with plans for Harrison Ford in the lawyer role and Bill Murray as the rapist Max Cady. Now THAT is a movie that I wish I could have seen. Can you imagine?

In the end, the remake of Cape Fear is adequate (if ill-advised), and were it not for the existence of a shorter, smarter, subtler film telling the same story, I’d give it a pass. Within the special features, Scorsese says that the original Cape Fear was a B-film. It’s ironic to me that now, over fifty years later, the 1962 version feels timeless while the remake feels like the dated B-film to me. Who’d have thought?


  1. I think I like the remake a bit more than you, but I agree it has some major problems. The first half of the film works like gangbusters for me, as Cady takes advantage of the already-existing fissures in Sam's family to drive wedges between them (this is why Sam is made a philanderer, I think). As the film goes on, however, it becomes SO pumped-up and overcharged that it becomes ridiculous. It's one of those movies where the bad guy's persistence ceases to be menacing and just becomes annoying.

    Credit to Saul and Elaine Bass for the superb title sequence (which uses some outtakes from the Seconds sequence, I believe).

    A good Gregory Peck performance is in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Hitch made good use of Peck's passivity and blankness by casting him as a shellshocked mental case.

    1. Re-watching Scorsese's version of Cape Fear is the first time I think I've ever found a De Niro performance to be obnoxious. Like you said, it goes beyond menacing and becomes annoying. For the cherry on top, Max Cady speaks in tongues during the climax? Because "why not?"

      I'm going to have to seek out Spellbound. I have a Hitchcock box set, but I don't think that film is in it. There are quite a few Hitchcock movies outside of the obvious ones that I haven't seen. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I have to rewatch the original again to really compare, but I revisited the remake recently and really enjoyed it. I am of the mind that De Niro's performance is creepy and menacing and great, and Nick Nolte is not an actor I think about a whole lot, but he was a great choice for that part. Juliette Lewis also rules. It's far from being my favorite Scorsese movie, but it's one I like a lot.

    I can see Steve's point with the movie being a little over the top by its conclusion, though.

    1. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the remake when you watched it recently. I certainly don't want to try to steer anyone into a particular direction with my own opinion, so I'm glad that it holds up for you, John.

  3. Great comparison, Heath. I've only seen parts of the original, but you've motivated me to seek it out. Each version has it's strengths, but I'm my mind it's Simpson's Cape Feare FTW! "I am the very model of a modern Major-General..."

  4. There's another significant (major) change between the two movies, which makes Cady's thirst for revenge against Bowden more understandable in the 1991 movie. In the 1962 movie, Bowden was just a witness (who gave court testimony) to the crime that got Cady 8 years in prison. However, in the 1991 movie, Bowden was Cady's attorney of record (as a public defender) in the case that got Cady 14 years in prison, and Bowden unethically took a dive in the case, because Bowden allowed his personal feelings about the case to override his professional duty. In both movies, Cady is a despicable person, who actually committed the crime that got him sent to prison. But in the 1962 movie, Bowden didn't do anything adverse to Cady that Cady didn't bring on himself, whereas in the 1991 movie, Cady does have a legitimate beef with Bowden (though Cady addresses it inappropriately).

  5. Ive been contemplating this review since last night and I still can't picture Bill murray in this film. Thats a crazy bit of casting.

    I do like the remake and I am embarrassed to admit I have still not seen the original.

    So many films. So little time