At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Cape Fear “91”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Psychological Thriller/Stars: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Illeana Douglas, Fred Thompson, Martin Balsam, Zully Montero, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese/Runtime: 127 minutes

I think it can easily be said that, for most avid film lovers such as myself, if you were to say the word “remake” in the same sentence with the name of Martin Scorsese you might be on the verge of uttering a complete and utter contradiction. This is because not only is Scorsese a man who consistently has tried to be one of the more original film helmers in the land of movie magic, but he also is one of the biggest advocates for the preservation of a lot of older films in order for them to be accessible for generations to come. Thus it really would seem that, by and large, the idea of remaking something that had already been done once might just be downright cinematic blasphemy to this iconic film helmer. However, there is one instance to the contrary on that front. I say that because all the way back in the long gone year of 1991, audiences got to witness as Scorsese, with a bit of friendly persuasion from friend/frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro, decided to give audiences his own distinct spin on a thrill ride from 1962 known as Cape Fear. A movie that, despite powerhouse performances from Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck and being a successful way to raise your EKG levels a few notches for a few hours, is one that was one that could be even more electrifying if remade by the right person. Thankfully, this is one belief that was soon validated to the point that I can say that the 1991 take on Cape Fear is, thanks to electrifying work on both sides of the camera, one thrill ride you won’t mind engaging in time and time again.

The plot is as follows: Cape Fear gets its nightmarish tale as we see that, in the aftermath of having spent the last 14 years in the state clink for the crime of rape, a psychopathic and tough as nails crook by the name of Max Cady sets out on a mission to find an attorney by the name of Sam Bowden and make his life a complete and utter hell. It seems that at one time Sam was a public defender and Cady was someone he was assigned to represent in court. However Sam was convinced that his client was guilty of the crimes he was being accused of and made the choice to withhold a piece or two of important evidence whilst the case was in trial. As a result, Cady received a much harsher sentence than he might otherwise have gotten, but who while a guest of the state has managed to become a much more educated person in regards to the law in the last 14 years and is now out and aiming for no less than pure vengeance. To that end, we see that using said legal knowledge Max starts out by operating at the fringiest areas of legality possible whilst also silently terrorizing his prey and also making life even more unbearable by also subtly and silently harassing Sam’s wife Leigh and their yearning to be treated like an adult 16-year old daughter Danielle. This proves to be a particular problem since Max’s invasion into their lives only makes the issues in Sam and Leigh’s marriage that were there to begin with that much more worse and further pushes Danielle away from her parents. Thus as the harassment finally begins to reach a breaking point, we see that our hero not only turns to a skilled albeit slightly sleazy P.I. who is employed by his firm for assistance, but also starts engaging in countermeasures in an attempt to get this psychopath off his neck and out of the lives of him and his family for good…

Now when I first saw Scorsese’s ‘Cape Fear’ as a kid of about 10-12 (I was a weird kid to say the least), I remember even at that age (even if I wasn’t quite ready to put my thoughts about film into words) getting the distinct vibe that this slice of cinematic pie could easily be seen by some as an exercise in excessive gratification with this movie’s helmer making the choice to increase his style and flair to a level that is downright distracting whilst also permitting it to meddle with and completely overwhelm the narrative. Thankfully, in my eyes I can honestly say that this is most assuredly not the case no matter what time I am watching it be it the first or 51st. Yes, and in all fairness, Scorsese’s robust utilization of the camera does gift a lot of the scenes in this movie a very fit flourish that inserts us head-first into the middle of all that is going on right next to this movie’s cast of characters. Yet even his more bold touches such as camera swings of 180 and 360 degrees to name one example thankfully don’t really take away from either the plot or the performances at the heart of it. That and if we’re being honest: this movie’s story is one that is already over the top as it is so if the way said story is presented turns out to be over the top in some ways as well then that’s both comprehensible yet also essential in order to put you, the viewer in the necessary frame of mind. Now it is worth noting that, from a technical perspective, there are a few angles that will seem like something Hitchcock would do to say nothing of the basic narrative hook of an ordinary family coming face to face with terrifying wickedness in small town U.S.A. Heck even the fireworks moment where Scorsese compares and contrasts sliminess with natural elegance and carnal urges does seem to have a distinct Hitchcock style to it. Oh and Scorsese does also make the intelligent choice to utilize the original movie’s score which was done by long-time collaborator of Hitch’s Bernard Herrmann and has more than its fair share of moments where it feels like this was Herrmann’s 2nd choice of score for Psycho. Yet even with those comparisons in the mix, it should be said that this is most assuredly a Martin Scorsese movie and suffice it to say that he manages to dive into the thriller genre of movie magic with glee whilst with professional skill never giving into the temptation of utilizing the things that often water down slices of cinematic pie in the same vein as this one.

It’s also worth pointing out that through the clever and ingenious choice of showcasing our family of protagonists as dysfunctional to the hilt, and thus highly susceptible to be toyed with on a psychological level, Scorsese actually manages to better the original movie courtesy of this conflict that extends past just the nuts and bolts of the plot and also putting a lot more immersiveness and pathos in this than other films of a similar ilk typically have. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the dysfunctional bonds the Bowden family have with each other is actually at times a lot more riveting than Max and his one-note quest for revenge against family patriarch Sam. With that said though, a degree of how ingenious this movie’s screenplay is due to how much it actually makes the choice to analyze the character of Max to the point that we can accept his fury and even, to a significantly smaller degree, feel pity for him as well. Yes Max did make the most his time in prison courtesy of getting an education and buffing up, but at the same time he is also so obsessed with revenge and feeling like he got screwed that he just can’t accept trying to become part of society again. Thus, even though he finds himself ill-fated to go down this one-way road, Max is actually at peace with how things very well could play out just so long as he can get his revenge on the man who screwed him. Yet there are a few moments here and there where he lets his wall down just a bit and give the audience a chance to see his true feelings emerge and not only do these moments have a fair bit of resonance to them, but they also manage to contribute a few extra wrinkles to this particular narrative. Finally, it’s also worth noting that the riveting and downright electrifying climax of this film involving an adrift houseboat during a torrential downpour is absolutely thrilling in all the best ways. Indeed Scorsese does a masterclass job of with ease merging together sets, miniatures, and artwork in order to conjure up a mood of anarchy, terror, and just primal fear that makes for complete and utter edge of your seat entertainment even if there is quite a bit in the way of implausibility. Suffice it to say that it is in these moments where this film manages to transform from an arresting psychological mind game of sorts into a popcorn thriller of the finest caliber and the movie is all the better for it.

Now the performances in this are all top-flight in every sense of the word. This starts with De Niro who is just a complete and utter force of nature in this as Max Cady. Indeed covered with a variety of tattoos and possessing more muscle than he did possibly even for his portrayal of Jake La Motta in 1980’s Raging Bull, the iconic thespian manages to completely transform into the character once more this time complete with laid-back Southern accent, a flowing mane of hair, smugly satisfied grin, and slimy gaze all managing to contribute to a performance that is downright chilling. We also get wonderful work here from Juliette Lewis as Sam’s teenage daughter Danielle who finds herself running on feelings, attitudes, and inner gripes she just doesn’t have a full comprehension of. Indeed Lewis manages to do not only a wonderful job, but also gives us one of the more realistic depictions of teenage angst I have seen in a movie to date. We also get terrific work in this from Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange as Sam and his wife Leigh. Indeed in the role of the family patriarch whose sins have come back to haunt him, Nolte does a great job at not only playing a man who must protect his family at all costs, but also at playing a man who is a highly flawed character even to the people he is trying to protect. Suffice it to say Nolte does great at playing this guy who may seem tough and assertive on the outside is very much frightened out of his mind on the inside. Lange on the other hand does a great job at making the character of Leigh one who won’t take crud from no one and has no problem showing it yet is equally capable of being heartbroken when the moment calls for it. Finally, we also get, in a terrific throwback to the original movie from 1962, wonderful cameos from Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam as a cynical cop, sleazy defense lawyer, and tough as nails judge respectively.

All in all well this sure was the most delightful kind of surprise possible dear reader. I mean not only was this slice of cinematic pie one that was wonderfully visceral and unrelenting the first time I saw it, but upon watching it again for the purposes of this review I can safely say that the 1991 take on the story of Cape Fear is one that has managed to age a lot more gracefully than even I could have anticipated due in large part to being able to more fully enjoy and respect its raw and brutal potency and mood a heck of a lot more than when I was a kid just watching it to pass the time in the hospital while suffering from a kidney stone. No this is one slice of cinematic pie that for a lot of people will never ever come close to being on the same level as say GoodFellas or Taxi Driver, but there is no denying that the 1991 Cape Fear is a riveting and solid thrill ride that is both powerfully made and powerfully performed with particular regard to the downright chilling work in this by acting legend Robert De Niro. Suffice it to say that sometimes that’s really all you need from a film and in that respect this film is more than willing to deliver. On a scale of 1-5 I give Cape Fear “91” a solid 4 out of 5.