Weekend Film Recommendation: Cape Fear

The second instalment of this month’s series of movie recommendations is sure to set your skin crawling. The theme of the series is ‘remakes,’ and with this film, be warned: it is not for the faint of heart. It took me two efforts before I could bring myself to watch it through to the end! If you have the stomach, treat yourself to Martin Scorsese’s superb 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear.

Robert De Niro, no stranger to playing villains, plays the convicted rapist Max Cady in his penultimate collaboration with Scorsese. Cady has spent the last fourteen years in a prison cell, where he has divided his time between causing mayhem, tattooing biblical verses to his body, and assiduously studying criminal law. He is brutish yet literate, violent yet thoughtful. Above all his complexity he’s utterly petrifying, and he’s determined to exact revenge on the defense counsel who failed to keep him from going to prison all those years ago.

The defense lawyer in question is Sam Bowden, a family man played by Nick Nolte. When we meet Sam, he is trying to make amends for past indiscretions that nearly compromised his marriage to Leigh, played by Jessica Lange. Their innocent and naïve daughter Danielle, played by Juliette Lewis, completes this upper-middle class North Carolina family. A fragile marriage, an impressionable daughter, and a troubled history with a former client… Sam Bowden has all the vulnerabilities and pressure points Cady needs.

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When Cady is released from prison, he’s well equipped to exploit the procedural ambiguities of law and the frailty of the Bowden family’s lifestyle. He sets to work terrorizing them, but always in ways that preclude Bowden from prosecuting a legal case. It’s not long before the Bowden’s nerves begin to fray, which is exactly according to Cady’s plan.

Scorsese is diligent about citing his influences, which is sure to satisfy those who might think a remake would be redundant. He casts some of the original members from the 1962 version in an eerie play on the symmetry of Bowden and Cady’s characters: Gregory Peck, who played Bowden in the original, now has a cameo playing the sanctimonious lawyer defending Cady from Sam’s predation. Robert Mitchum, who played Cady in the original, plays the cop who tempts Sam away from legal probity.

Scorsese clearly pays homage to Hitchcock, who was also a principal inspiration for Thompson’s direction in the original: there are plenty of Hitchcockian signature ‘double-focus’ shots, in which two characters at different depths remain in simultaneous focus by splicing together footage from multiple cameras post-production. Scorsese is similarly fond of Hitchcock’s use of jarring music throughout the film to elevate even mundane scenes into a perpetual stressor. The most obvious nod to Hitchcock relates to Cady’s clothing choice in one scene, but I won’t give away too many details.

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There are some downright difficult scenes to watch. Unlike Scorsese’s final collaboration with De Niro (Casino [1995]), in which the violence is usually on-screen, in Cape Fear Scorsese relies on the classic Hitchcock gambit of suggestion rather than performance. But it’s not the violence that gets to you as much as the scenes in which Cady manipulates and seduces young Danielle. Her innocent curiosity works horrifyingly in Cady’s favor, as he’s able to conceal his menace underneath feigned tenderness. While Nolte, Mitchum, and (especially) Lange do a fine job, the Academy ultimately nominated both De Niro and Lewis for Oscars for their performances.

Care to be unsettled? Watch Cape Fear, and let us know what you think in the comments!

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.