Martin Scorsese’s thriller remake is 25 this month. Sooz Kempner watched it again to see if it has stood the test of time.
What and why: Bahhh-bahhhh-bahhh-bahhhh! Bahhhhh-bahhhh-bahhhh-bahhhhh!
Yes, that’s the instantly recognisable Bernard Herrmann score for the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, the 1962 film about an attorney whose family are stalked by an ex-con he helped jail. The original starred Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck and is a real classic in the psychological thriller genre. But that’s not what this is about; I’m gonna rate-or-date Scorsese’s follow-up to Goodfellas as it turns the big 2-5.
The ’91 film has many links to the original. The three main cast members all have supporting roles in the remake and Scorsese made the genius decision of retaining the score. The plot is pretty much the same but that’s where the similarities end.
Where the Bowden family in the ’62 film were whiter-than-white goodness personified, in the remake they’re a whole lot less pure. The family have moved to a new town following Sam Bowden’s (Nick Nolte) affair, something his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is clearly still reeling from. She is paranoid and passive aggressive and though her behaviour is understandable, it’s also a big ol’ character flaw.
“The turbulent climax on a riverboat is incredibly exhilarating, but the film builds a creeping terror throughout and somehow does it all with a sense of humour. You’ll buy it, you’ll be scared, but you’ll also be aware this is all quite silly.”
They’re piecing their marriage back together but Sam is already on the edge of another affair with his attractive young colleague Lori (played by one of the most underrated actors of all time, Illeana Douglas. Seriously, in a parallel universe she’s a huge star with two Oscars). All this is clearly taking its toll on their 15-year-old daughter, in a sterling performance from a young Juliette Lewis.
While the Bowdens are just about functioning in their new house Max Cady is being released after 14 years in jail. He knows that Sam, his lawyer during the trial, buried evidence that could have seen him walk free from the rape and battery of an underage girl. He’s spent his years behind bars learning the law, plotting revenge, beefing up and tattooing himself.
This larger-than-life, more-than-human villain is played with uncharacteristically big choices by Robert De Niro. He is the axis the film rotates around, a bombastic, hilarious and truly terrifying antagonist. As he guffaws at Problem Child in a cinema while smoking a cigar to intimidate the Bowden family, you won’t know whether to laugh at his cartoonishness or sneak out of the room in the hope he won’t clock you leaving.
De Niro, method as ever, worked out constantly to create Cady’s impressive physique. He’s always had a bizarre ability to shrink or grow in his performances (and not just physically); here in Cape Fear he seems 6’5”; a monster with a strange sexuality that possibly entices Leigh Bowden and definitely reels in the teenage Danielle.
The turbulent climax on a riverboat is incredibly exhilarating, but the film builds a creeping terror throughout and somehow does it all with a sense of humour. You’ll buy it, you’ll be scared, but you’ll also be aware this is all quite silly. Scorsese and De Niro are having an absolute ball, particularly in the film’s most iconic shot: a louche De Niro reclining on the Bowdens’ perimeter wall, just within the law, while behind him fireworks are erupting.
His seduction of Danielle in her school’s theatre (on a fairytale forest set) is the creepiest of all. He poses as her new drama teacher and connects with her immediately. She eventually figures out he isn’t the drama teacher at all, he’s Max Cady and he poisoned the family’s dog. And then she flees from the theatre.
Except she doesn’t, at all. She gives her warring parents a big ol’ rebellious ‘fuck you’ by sucking on Cady’s thumb and kissing him passionately. It’s superbly played by De Niro and Lewis (they were both Oscar nominated for their roles) and the total lack of score for the scene is DEAFENING.
Every character is complex and never underwritten. Leigh Bowden could easily be written as a submissive dutiful wife or a shrieking shrew but she’s a woman on the edge, troubled and frustrated but ultimately emerging as the strongest member of the family. It is her, not Sam, who steps up to save Danielle at the film’s climax and Danielle in turn becomes powerful. The women in this film suffer but are never passive.
I won’t give anything else away but this is an anxious, jittery ride – a true thriller. It will shock and appal and you’ll have a ruddy good time as it does so.
Rated or dated: Big time RATED. A quarter of a century has done nothing to temper the power of Cape Fear. The pacing of films in 2016 compared to the early 90s can make the 90s films look very slow in comparison, but Cape Fear is as slick, stylish and exhilarating as it was during its original release. Its influence on popular culture can be seen in many mediums but most famously in one of the all-time classic Simpsons episodes, Cape Feare. The episode makes a great double bill with the Scorsese film – treat yourself.
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Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.