Cape Fear (1991) [DVD]
Director : Martin Scorsese
Screenplay : Wesley Strick (based on the 1962 by James R. Webb and the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Illeana Douglas (Lori Davis), Robert Mitchum (Lt. Elgart), Gregory Peck (Lee Heller), Martin Balsam (Judge)
The character of Sam Bowden as played by Nick Nolte in Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear is a far different man than the one played by Gregory Peck in J. Lee Thompson's 1962 original. As played by Peck, Sam Bowden was a pillar of dignity, honesty, and rationality, a good-hearted Southern attorney and family man forced to unleash his inner animal when his family is threatened by an unstoppable psychopath in the hulking form of Robert Mitchum.
Nolte's Sam Bowden is a man cut from a different cloth: Uptight, morally flawed, often irrational and impulsive, he is a man who brings his misery upon himself. Whereas the original Sam Bowden represented goodness forced to battle evil on evil's terms, Nolte's Sam Bowden is a guilty man who comes face-to-face with a demon of his own making in the even more hulking form of Robert De Niro. It is as if De Niro's character is borne out Sam's martial and familial strife, a dark specter from the past hell-bent on vengeance, determined to make Sam face the fact that he is not a good man.
This is the operatic complexity director Martin Scorsese brings to Cape Fear, a blatantly commercial turn for the notoriously outré director. When he made Cape Fear, Scorsese's career had already spanned three decades and virtually every genre. But, despite brimming critical accolades and a guaranteed place as one of the most important and influential American directors, he never sold all that well at the box office. Scorsese's films are often bloody and brutal, laced with Catholic-inflected themes about guilt, suffering, and sacrifice; they're brilliant, but difficult. His heroes are never pure; often, in fact, they are distinct antiheroes, fringe-dwellers, criminals, and psychotics.
It is the great achievement of Cape Fear, then, that Scorsese managed to make a commercially viable thriller without sacrificing his own thematic interests and distinctive stamp as a director. Budgeted at $35 million and produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg had considered directing it himself for a while), Cape Fear was unlike any project Scorsese had ever tackled.
Of course, he could have taken a more conservative route and delivered a routine genre thriller. Instead, he took the opportunity to experiment and push the envelope, in terms of both his own artistic inclinations and what can pass for a commercial thriller in Hollywood. Scorsese decided to work for the first time in anamorphic widescreen; he and screenwriter Wesley Strick took great pains to reimagine the central plot devices to reflect Scorsese's own theological and philosophical preoccupations; and visually and aurally he gave the movie a distinctly old-fashioned vibe by using a palette of lurid Technicolor hues, relying on overdramatic matte paintings, and—in what turned out to be the most brilliant stroke of all—retaining Bernard Herrmann's (Psycho, Taxi Driver) crucial, thundering musical score, the kind no one writes anymore.
The central plot elements remain largely the same as the 1962 original (which was based on a pulp novel, The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald). Sam Bowden (Nolte) is a Southern attorney whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of an ex-con named Max Cady (De Niro). In the original, Cady blamed Sam for his conviction because Sam testified against him in a rape trial. A crucial change is made in Scorsese's version: Sam was not a witness against Cady, but rather his public defender who purposefully buried a prior sexual history report on Cady's rape victim because it showed her to be promiscuous, thus increasing the likelihood of Cady getting off. Sam's decision to bury the report is exactly the kind of morally ambiguous action that Scorsese loves. On the one hand, it was a moral deed as Cady was plainly guilty and deserved all those years in prison—probably more. Yet, at the same time, Sam had taken an oath and it was his duty to defend Cady in a court of law.
The other crucial change in the basic plot scenario is the Bowden family itself, which in Scorsese's version takes center stage. In the original, the Bowdens were a sitcom-perfect family unit, all smiles and hugs and good words, a last remnant of the Leave it to Beaver '50s. The Bowdens in Scorsese's version are deeply troubled, and it is made clear that the root of the problem is Sam himself and his infidelities. Sam's wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), has stayed with him, but she is still bitter and angry about Sam's adulterous lapses. Their emotional wounds are barely closed up, always threatening to burst open again and fester. Their 15-year-old daughter, Danny (Juliette Lewis), is fast becoming the cliché product of a broken family. Already having been busted for smoking dope, she is an impressionable girl on the verge of young womanhood who is lacking any role models or stability—hence, she is a perfect target.
The tension in Cape Fear comes from the menacing presence of Max Cady and the constant, though never explicitly stated, threat he embodies. De Niro has taken Cady's character and pumped him up beyond what Mitchum brought in the original. In some ways, De Niro's take on the character is ludicrously over the top, as he is now a product of not only sexual perversity and sociopathic hatred, but also of bizarre religious self-righteousness and philosophical arrogance. In this way, he is the perfect image of a philosopher in Nietzsche's sense: "a terrible explosive in the presence of which everything is in danger." De Niro's Cady spouts Biblical passages and philosophical treatises, and what he does not say is tattooed across his muscle-bound frame. His back bears a giant cross on which hang the scales of justice, and each of his forearms bears a dire Biblical passage ripped out of context and made terrible: "Vengeance is mine" (Romans 12:19) and "My time is at hand" (Matthew 26).
Cady is clever in many ways—he torments Sam by constantly threatening him without ever doing or saying anything that is on the wrong side of the law. Sam goes to the police, but finds that they cannot help him. He hires a private detective (Joe Don Baker) to follow Cady, but that seems to be just as fruitless. Sam begins to resort to more and more desperate measures, and it is here that Scorsese's remake loses some of the tense drama from the original. Because Sam is already such a deeply flawed character, it seems only natural that he would resort to desperate, outside-the-law tactics in order to save himself and his family. He does not come across as a desperate man fighting to save the ones he loves, but rather as a desperate man simply trying to stop himself from being sucked into a vortex of his own making.
Nevertheless, Cape Fear grabs you from the opening frames and never relents; it is a virtuoso feat of kinetic filmmaking. Scorsese moves easily from family melodrama, to suspenseful thriller, to outright horror movie and then action spectacle. He uses deep focus, canted camera angles, quick zooms, fast cutting, and even shots that spin 360 degrees. But, at the same time, he is willing to discard the visual pyrotechnics when they are not called for, such as a long, emotionally excruciating sequence in which Cady lures Danny into an empty auditorium by pretending to be her drama teacher. It's an extended sequence without music or other extradiegetic cues, and Scorsese relies entirely on the strength of the two performers. The scene works brilliantly—it is stomach-clenching and dangerously erotic at the same time.
If Cape Fear ultimately has a flaw, it is that Scorsese pushes things a little too far, especially in the protracted climax aboard a houseboat on the titular river. Cady, finally dropping all pretenses, puts Sam on trial during a raging tempest, forcing his terrified family to be the "jury." It's a tour de force of over-the-top action filmmaking, but in all honesty it's too much. De Niro's calculating performance devolves into near-campy hysteria. Still, even if the ending slides too close to self-parody, the rest of the movie stands as testament to Scorsese's cinematic prowess and intense originality, even when working in the commercial mainstream.
|Cape Fear THX-Certified Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
Dolby 3.0 Surround
|Languages||English (DD 5.1, DTS 5.1), Spanish (3.0), French (3.0)|
|Supplements|| The Making of Cape Fear documentary |
8 deleted scenes
Behind the scenes of the Fourth of July parade
On the set of the houseboat
Opening credits sequences
Original theatrical trailer
Cast and filmmaker biographies
|Universal has given Cape Fear a gorgeous THX-certified anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer. The image is crystal-clear and beautifully detailed with solid black levels and fine shadow detail. Scorsese and cinematographer Freddie Francis gave the movie a purposefully oversaturated look—it is filled with intense, bold colors that makes the movie look like it was shot on old Technicolor stock. The transfer maintains the intensity of the movie's color scheme without bleeding or oversaturation.|
|Included on this disc are both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround tracks. Bernard Herrmann's classic musical score, which was reorchestrated by Elmer Bernstein along with pieces of Herrmann's never-used score for Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, has never sounded better. The music is given a deep, resonant sound that brings chilling clarity to all the thundering chords. The action sequences also benefit from the 5.1 channels of the sound, especially the final battle on the houseboat that makes good use of directionality and imagining (although the LFE channel is a little light throughout).|
| The second disc in this fantastic two-disc set contains nearly two hours of well-produced supplemental material. Although it is lacking an audio commentary, Laurent Bouzereau's 80-minute documentary The Making of Cape Fear covers just about everything you could possible want to know about the movie's production. The documentary contains both new and older interviews with more than a dozen people involved with the project, including director Martin Scorsese (the majority of his interview was done in 1999); screenwriter Wesley Strick; actors Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, and Gregory Peck; editor Thelma Schoonmaker; production designer Henry Bumstead; and David S. Williams Jr. and Bill Taylor, who did the movie's optical effects. As with all of Bouzereau's making-of documentaries, this one is slick and highly polished, with a good flow and a wealth of fascinating details and trivia. All of the interviews are well done and informative, although I can never get used to people referring to Scorsese and De Niro (who, the documentary makes clear, worked together as a team throughout) as "Marty" and "Bobby." |
Eight deleted scenes, comprising about nine minutes of total footage, are also included. Presented in somewhat scratchy nonanamorphic widescreen, most of the footage is of complete scenes that were removed, although a few are extensions of scenes already in the movie. None of it is particularly crucial, although several scenes add additional depth to the characters, especially Danny.
Also included are two brief behind-the-scenes featurettes, "Behind the Scenes of the Fourth of July Parade," which runs just over two minutes, and "On the Houseboat," which is just over a minute and half. Not much explication here, just a little footage of the filming of these scenes intercut with the finished footage as it appears in the movie.
The photograph montage is divided into three sections: "The Physical Transformation of Robert De Niro's Max Cady," "The Cast of Cape Fear," and "Martin Scorsese Directs Cape Fear." As good as this disc is, this is a classic example of the DVD trying to do too much, as the photograph montage is constantly and pointlessly interrupted with clips from the movie. Those who, like myself, prefer photograph galleries that can be looked through at the viewer's own pace will find this especially irritating.
The matte paintings section is a quick, one-minute bit that shows four major scenes in the movie with and without the matte paintings that were incorporated into the shot. The opening credits section is a somewhat odd addition, as it has nothing to with Cape Fear itself, but rather compiles four movies' opening credits sequences—those of Vertigo, Psycho, Spartacus, and Casino—that were designed by the ingenious Saul Bass, who also designed the credits for this movie. Unfortunately, these are all presented in nonanamorphic widescreen, so you don't get the full resolution. Lastly, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer in nonanamorphic widescreen, as well as production notes and cast and crew filmographies.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick