If there was a director destined to remake 1962’s Cape Fear in the early 90s, before Tarantino arrived on the scene with his love for reusing old styles, Martin Scorsese would have (not necessarily should have, though) been the one. A lover of vintage Hollywood and its techniques, Scorsese’s best works (from Raging Bull with De Niro reciting the famous passage from On the Waterfront to Goodfellas and up to The Departed with clips of The Informer) glitter with homages to older films. Cape Fear is his first full remake.
Scorsese gives the classic thriller a retro-trippy look evocative of 60s Hitchcock. The setting too, rubs its Southerness more strongly in our faces. Just about everyone here has a thick accent, especially Robert De Niro’s incarnation of Max Cady.
De Niro, however, is not a Robert Mitchum. He is more of a Marlon Brando. It’s clear that Scorsese is going for a different type of villain here than Mitchum’s smooth-operating interpretation of the character. This reimagining of the newly released convict is more psychotic and deadlier. Ironically, given both the new nature of the character and the greater nihilism of this version, Scorsese gives Max Cady more morality in his thirst for vengeance. Sam Bowden (played now by Nick Nolte instead of Gregory Peck), his attorney defending him against charges of rape, concealed evidence that Cady’s victim had a promiscuous past. This film was made in 1991, before evidence involving someone’s past behavior became inadmissible in a rape case.
Scorsese gives the characters depth that the original lacked and largely because of this his Cape Fear is one of the few remakes superior to the original. Perhaps, however, he is showing, rather than implying, too much. Too many things in this movie are overstated including the faulty dynamics of the Bowden family. For instance, in order to form a good foil for Cady, Bowden and his broken family should have appeared upstanding at first, and then, as the movie went on, the dysfunctions would gradually come to light, showing that the two enemies maybe aren’t so different after all. Scorsese makes the mistake of hitting us with Sam Bowden’s infidelity and his daughter’s (Juliette Lewis) drug use and problems at school from the very beginning, and so the suspense is squelched. Indeed, while improving on the original, Scorsese is out of his element in Cape Fear. His trademark violence is appropriate in movies like Gangs of New York and The Departed but, by nature, suspense thrillers are scarier when they follow the golden rule that less is more.
But while Scorsese is not at his best in Cape Fear and makes mistakes in his addition to the dimensions of the characters, it is still commendable for him to do what the original didn’t bother to do at all. As in the original, good performances compensate for weaknesses. Even leads Gregory Peck, Mitchum, and Martin Balsam return for small roles in this remake. Mitchum gets the plum role as the corruptible officer advising Sam Bowden to take the law into his own hands. Jessica Lange, meanwhile, looks enough like Juliette Lewis to play her controlling mother believably.
In many ways, the most amazing performance in the film comes from Juliette Lewis. She perfectly captures the insecurities and curiosities of a lost teenage girl. Her vulnerability exploited by Max Cady in this movie would be lured to dangerous extremes in future films such as Natural Born Killers.
But of course, the performances of Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte are the core of the film. In this film, Cady plays more mind games with Bowden. It’s fun to realize how well Max Cady knows and has obviously studied Sam Bowden to manipulate his feelings and weaknesses. Indeed, Max Cady knows about his adversaries and toys not only with Sam Bowden but also with his daughter Danielle and even the private detective. Nick Nolte plays Sam Bowden as a man fighting inner demons but with a conscience.
The best thing Martin Scorsese brings to Cape Fear is allegories, both literary and Biblical. Beginning with a brilliantly spooky shot through an empty high school hallway and then the empty theater, Scorsese creates a frightening encounter between Danielle and Max Cady. The stage gingerbread house where Cady sits ready to seduce Danielle uses Hansel & Gretel imagery to good effect. Remember how the witch lured the children to her edible house to trap them in her snare. Cape Fear, however, associates with the sexual undertones of fairy tales, a point made obvious by Cady’s mention of the Big Bad Wolf. What’s interesting is that Danielle’s attitude toward Max Cady is similar to that of Red Riding Hood toward the wolf. She is afraid and repulsed, but strangely interested.
A true, cinematic visionary, Martin Scorsese brings both the religious allegories he has been playing with throughout the film (Max Cady is depicted as a religious loon) and love for cinema to beautiful fusion by the grand finale. While still set on a boathouse at night, Scorsese’s ending is noisier than the original and goes for the colors of hell. De Niro’s face becomes a bloody red and (after being set on fire with a lighter by Danielle), it gains a grotesque Freddy Krueger appearance. In the end, Max Cady cannot wash the blood off his hands in the same way that humanity could not wash away all its sins.