by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?