Scorsese: Cape Fear

When Gus Van Sant released his near shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, it was to a bemused response of “Why?” It added nothing to the original, apart from an unintentionally funny vignette in which Vince Vaughn masturbated – legendary film critic Roger Ebert thought this appropriate because the “new Psycho evokes the real thing in an attempt to re-create remembered passion.”  The only good thing Ebert had to say about the Psycho 1998 vintage related to its role as a curio:

“The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”

Whatever its faults, Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the 1962 classic thriller Cape Fear is not simply a shot-by-shot homage. Some basic elements remain – the key plot details, the central characters and the main locations, for example – but other, more radical changes make this a quite different tale from J Lee Thompson’s. Even the opening titles signal Scorsese’s intention to make this his own, for better or worse, despite the employment of Saul Bass. Let’s compare and contrast, shall we?

The most obvious and dramatic change is to the characters of the Bowden family, and Sam Bowden in particular. In the 1961 version, the Bowdens are so sweet that they’re a diabetes risk factor. The Bowdens’ daughter Nancy is preternaturally beautiful (in fact, Lori Martin was later cast as Velvet Brown in the television version of National Velvet partly on the basis of her resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor), and there is no evidence that her sunny demeanour masks anything other than a fastidiousness about her appearance. Peggy and Sam have a model marriage, Sam is a pillar of the community and their house is freakin’ awesome.

Flash forward 30 years, and the Bowdens are unrecognisable. The house is still freakin’ awesome, but Peggy and Nancy have become Leigh and Danielle, and while Jessica Lange is a good physical double for Polly Bergen’s original Mrs Bowden, they wouldn’t recognise each other. Peggy is a wife shaped by the pages of the 1950s Good Housekeeping, but Leigh is a chain-smoking, neurotic mess shaped by endless episodes of Dr Phil. And who could blame her? She can’t even design a stupid logo for a travel company, her husband’s been unfaithful to her, and her daughter is a hormonal, pot-smoking mess made worse by her parents’ constant arguing over Sam’s history of infidelity.

Meanwhile, Nancy has gone from doll-like perfection to Juliette Lewis. Everyone together now: “Holy shit! It’s Mallory Knox!” While Martin didn’t have a lot to do in the original beyond looking alternately adorable and terrified, she did it very well. (Thompson admitted that because she wasn’t his first choice for the role, that was Hayley Mills he gave her a hard time on set.) But Lewis’ performance in this movie is astonishing, and yet again proves that the Academy doesn’t know jack when it comes to handing out awards. Here’s the infamous ‘thumb sucking’ scene between her and De Niro (fairly NSFW):

In some ways this is, like a lot of things about Scorsese’s take, a bit over-ripe. Danielle’s white dress, the fairy tale stage set and De Niro’s “demonic Mesmerist” ensemble of red shirt and black suit all combine to provide some all-too obvious imagery. But who cares? The scene works – and mainly because of Lewis’ nuanced performance. The range of emotion she has to convey here (confused, flattered, embarrassed, horny, curious, scared) would drain a lesser soul, particularly up against a legend like De Niro. Watching her in this film is to be given all the more reason to hate her ill-fated yet stubbornly persistent music “career”.

The scene also brings to the fore the ‘oral fixation’ motif that Scorsese lays on with a trowel: as the pressure builds Sam joins his wife in her chain-smoking sessions, Cady is never without a cigar, Danielle wears a retainer and Leigh is busy applying lipstick the first time she catches sight of Cady, causing her to smear it off with her fingers in a leery close-up. Among the more unsavoury revelations about Cady is that he is suspected of a murder in which the victim’s tongue was bitten off, and he reproaches Bowden’s private eye for threatening him with the line “It’s not necessary to lay a foul tongue on me my friend.” Cady himself is a verbal powerhouse – the preposterous finale even sees him speaking in tongues.

Part of what Scorsese’s interpretation so interesting is his rejection of the simple “Good v Evil” plot of the original. In 1962, Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden is a fine upstanding citizen whose testimony has helped to put Cady away for eight years. Thanks to the strict censorship in place at the time, the word ‘rape’ is never used, but we’re in no doubt as to what he witnessed Cady doing. However, his role in Cady’s incarceration is almost peripheral. Yes, he’s a lawyer, but he wasn’t Cady’s lawyer – his employment is merely symbolic of his character. Bowden is justice, and civilization, and common decency and all that is finest about humanity’s ability to organise itself into communities. Cady is precisely the opposite: he’s uncivilized, uncouth, and like an animal his actions are unpredictable and often violent. The exchange he has with poor, doomed Diane (Barrie Chase, more famous as Fred Astaire’s partner on the dance floor and in life) makes this explicit:

Diane: What would you know about scenery? Or beauty? Or any of the things that really make life worth living? You’re just an animal: coarse, lustful, barbaric.
Max: Keep right on talkin’, honey. I like it when you run me down like that.
Diane: Max Cady, what I like about you is… you’re rock bottom. I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.

When Cady does bother learning the rules, it’s only to twist them to his own ends. Nowhere is Max’s ability to subvert society’s order more vividly illustrated than in two key scenes. In the first, he employs a top-flight lawyer to enumerate the many instances of ‘police harassment’ that he has been subjected to (for reference skip to the 6.20 mark):

In the second, he attacks Diane – even though she has willingly gone with him to a hotel room. Mitchum has to convey menace with simply a look and does it to devastating effect: De Niro, in a similar scene with Ileana Douglas, is unfortunately allowed to commit his horrors on camera. This is, in my view, a mistake. Part of what makes Cady’s attack on Diane so chillingly effective in the 1962 version is that we don’t know exactly what happens because it literally happens behind a closed door, and Diane is so traumatised that she refuses to speak about it. The audience is forced into accessing the darker reaches of its imagination. By 1991, however, we are spared nothing and Scorsese viscerally depicts Cady’s misogyny in a sickening sequence that does little to make Cady any more threatening than he would have been had the scene been omitted.

In the original film, Cady is a nightmare, and like a nightmare his existence can’t be explained or reasoned away. The revulsion that Peck’s Bowden feels in his presence is so strong he can barely articulate it – in a scene omitted from Scorsese’s version, Cady describes with blood-curdling calm what he did to his ex-wife when he got out of prison (or did he? A later phone conversation calls the veracity of the story into question). Bowden is appalled and, like Diane, equates Cady with something base and crawling – the serpent in the Garden. “You shocking degenerate. I’ve seen the worst – the dregs – but you… you are the lowest. Makes me sick to breathe the same air.”

There are echoes of this sentiment in the Scorsese film, but interestingly they tend to come from Cady himself. During the denouement, Cady screams at Bowden “Now you will learn about loss! Loss of freedom! Loss of humanity! Now you and I will truly be the same…” – the overt implication being that Cady is aware that he is perceived as something less than human, despite his quoting of Silesius: “I am like God and God like me. I am as large as God. He is as small as I. He cannot above me nor I beneath him be.”

In the 1962 version, Cady is picking on the Bowdens just because it suits him, and it’s his capacity for sexual violence that petrifies them even more than his evidently murderous rage. This leaves open the horrifying possibility that of all the people involved in getting him sent to prison – the detectives, the arresting officer, the lawyers, the judge – it was only the witness, Sam Bowden, who was blessed with a lovely wife and a beautiful, pubescent daughter. Not for nothing is the premise of Cape Fear still able to turn stomachs.

Scorsese doesn’t exactly do away with this possible interpretation, but he goes back to the original book (The Executioners by John D. Macdonald) for Cady’s motive for pursuing Bowden and his family. This time out, Sam was Cady’s lawyer, and furthermore he deliberately hid evidence that could have reduced the sentence because he was so horrified by Cady’s crime. This revision also reveals Bowden v2.0 to be deceitful when it suits him. Sam 2.0 also has a slightly different, though significant, reason for shying away from having Cady beaten by thugs. Whereas Nolte’s Bowden initially rejects the idea because “the law is my job!”, Peck’s Bowden is repulsed by the idea of resorting to brutality. This makes the actions of Nolte’s Sam more plausible, but less psychologically interesting to watch. Peck’s Bowden uses violence as an absolute last resort, when all ‘civilized’ avenues have failed him. In the final, climatic scene his belief in the supremacy of man-made justice prevails. As he holds a gun on the wounded Cady, Cady gestures for him to shoot. “Go ahead. I just don’t give a damn.”

But Bowden – though clearly tempted – has been misjudged. Whatever Cady has pushed him to, it’s not into becoming someone else. He’s able to see clearly what Cady would consider a fate worse than death. “No. No! That would be letting you off too easy, too fast. Your words – do you remember? Well I do. No, we’re gonna take good care of you. We’re gonna nurse you back to health. And you’re strong, Cady. You’re gonna live a long life… in a cage! That’s where you belong and that’s where you’re going. And this time for life! Bang your head against the walls. Count the years – the months – the hours… until the day you rot!”

Letting him live is Bowden’s ultimate revenge, and it allows him to reassert himself as the civilized man and the moral core of the story. Obviously Scorsese found this ending too neat, too unchallenging – and the Sam Bowden character too lacking in moral shades of grey. In his version, no one is ever wholly ‘innocent’ – not Sam, not his wife and not Danielle. In the 1962 film, Cady’s beating by the three thugs is something that Sam orders reluctantly and would prefer not to know about. Scorsese has Bowden actually sneak down to scene of the ambush to watch Cady get his ‘hospital job’. Naturally, this has the added benefit of providing De Niro with yet another show-stopping monologue. Scorsese’s version is just over 20 minutes longer than the original, and although I didn’t time it I’m willing to bet that nearly all of that extra running time is devoted to De Niro set pieces.

The recasting of De Niro as a tattooed religious firebrand is an obvious nod to Mitchum’s other iconic villain role, serial killer Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the mash-up was done only to provide De Niro with more opportunities to chew the scenery and physically dominate every moment he’s on screen. Even when he doesn’t have any lines, De Niro is allowed to indulge the worst of his over-the-top tendencies:

Although I am among De Niro’s innumerable fans, Scorsese has not curbed his predilection for show boating – it’s an “everything plus the kitchen sink” performance, and having seen Mitchum’s more restrained, and therefore creepier, characterisation of Max Cady I have to say that I found De Niro’s version paled in comparison. I’m aware that many, many people would disagree, but Mitchum didn’t need a scene where he bites a woman’s cheek off to convey seething malevolence – he could do that just by being on screen:

Like Peck, Mitchum has a cameo in Scorsese’s Cape Fear. He plays the police lieutenant originally played by Martin Balsam (who himself pops up as a judge). When Cady has to submit to a strip search, Bowden gets an eyeful of his hellfire and brimstone body art for the first time. “I don’t know whether to look at him or read him,” murmurs Mitchum to Nolte. It’s a great moment, in part because it’s impossible not to hear it as Mitchum’s personal comment on De Niro’s interpretation of a character Mitchum had already made famous 30 years before – and it’s a pretty ambiguous assessment.

Peck also gets to play meta-references with his cameo as the defence lawyer hired by Cady. As he howls with moral outrage on behalf of De Niro’s bruised and bandaged Cady, he seems to be poking fun not only at his own turn as Bowden, but at his most famous role as Atticus Finch, the lawyer and paragon of decency in To Kill a Mockingbird.

But Scorsese’s playing with comparisons doesn’t end there: he’s not shy of drawing parallels between Cady and Sam in their respective relationships with Danielle, either. Upping the queasiness of this exchange between Sam and Danielle is the fact that it almost immediately follows her first scene with Cady – and it’s far more sexualised and violent. It takes place in her bedroom, she’s in her underwear (“Put some clothes on, you’re not a little kid,” Sam tells her with an uncomfortable awareness of their changing dynamic) and Sam is much, much rougher with Danielle when he puts his hand on her face than Cady was:

There is nothing comparable in the 1962 film to this scene, and it adds a whole new layer to the Bowden family dynamic. Nancy really was a little girl in need of protection – Danielle is on the cusp of becoming a woman, and Dad is not happy about it despite that fact that, during the overblown finale, Danielle’s diminishing childishness results in her being the first member of the family to strike at Cady, first with boiling water:

And then with lighter fluid:

This is in sharp contrast to wee Nancy back in ’61, who limply waves a fire poker at Cady before letting it drop as he approaches – a fire poker, incidentally, is exactly what the original flavour Cady claims his ex-wife tried to defend herself with when he tracked her down. In the days before Psychoanalysis was discredited, that was surely not a coincidence.

I have to admit that it took me some time to get over Scorsese’s technical and visual gimmicks – the saturated colours, the shots that faded into negatives, De Niro’s wardrobe. Although both films were made as decades drew to a close, Scorsese’s film is burdened by a hangover from the excessive 1980s, not the stylish and more austere 1950s. But all of that was forgivable until Scorsese decided to crank the ending up to 11:

This is in such stark contrast to the climax of the 1961 version, which was tauter than piano wire, that I don’t even know where to start.  That bit where Danielle sets Cady on fire and he hurls himself off the boat but somehow manages to pull himself back on board despite the raging storm? As we’ve just seen, not nearly the end of it. Gone is the stealth with which Bowden had to creep through the reeds as Cady stalked him with a piece of lumber, gone is the eerie stillness of the night, gone is all the hold-your-breath, time-standing-still tension of the original. Now we have a storm, and a whirlpool, and a boat breaking up, and Robert De Niro proving harder to kill than a slasher-flick monster and speaking in tongues and Nick Nolte screaming “I’m going to kill you!”

I mean, Ishtar on a bike, it all goes so over the top that I haven’t even mentioned the ‘reveal’ that among the other skills Cady developed in prison was a gift for impersonation, which he uses to disguise himself as the Bowdens’ (Mexican, female) maid.

Ultimately, Scorsese puts ‘more’ into Cape Fear – more family dynamics, a ‘hero’ with more moral ambiguity, a villain with more of a love for the sound of his own voice – and as a result this is not as lean or as tense as the source material. It’s also unfortunate that he allows the whole thing to degenerate into laughable bombast in the final scenes.

This is a great movie in its own right, but it’s not a classic. That honour is still reserved for Thompson’s treatment.

Clare Moody

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