SCORSESE’S CAPE FEAR: SACRED AND PROFANE – Review by J. Hoberman [Sight and Sound]

J. Hoberman's review of "Cape Fear" (1991) by Martin Scorsese

Wildly baroque and movie-literate, Scorsese’ remake of Cape Fear reminds us why we should cherish the director, argues J. Hoberman

by J. Hoberman

The young Jean-Luc Godard wrote of Nicholas Ray that if the cinema no longer existed, Ray alone would be capable of inventing it — and, what’s more, of wanting to. Looking at the roster of current American directors, the same might be said (and often is) of Martin Scorsese. Steven Spielberg has made more money, Woody Allen has received more accolades, Oliver Stone (a former student) has reaped bigger headlines — but nobody has made better movies. Scorsese is Hollywood’s designated maestro: the most celluloid-obsessed and single-minded filmmaker in Hollywood, the one American director that Spike Lee would deign to admire.
Although Taxi Driver and the title song from New York, New York are the only Scorsese artifacts to embed themselves in American mainstream consciousness (a television series based on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore barely lasted one season), Scorsese has never lacked for critical support. Mean Streets was the most highly praised debut of the seventies; Raging Bull topped several polls as the best American movie of the eighties; GoodFellas received virtually every critics’ award in 1990. Even his so-called flops —the brilliant King of Comedy, engaging After Hours, and heartfelt Last Temptation of Christ — have had their defenders.
Perhaps hoping to repay Universal for bankrolling his magnificent obsession, The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese has entered into an exclusive six-year directing and producing deal with the studio and succumbed, at last, to remakitis. With his edgily overwrought Cape Fear remake, he has concocted an admittedly commercial thriller more skillful than inspired and at least as cerebral as it is gut twisting.
The first Cape Fear (1961, released by Universal-International) was knocked off by British director J. Lee Thompson between the martial epics The Guns of Navarone and Taras Bulba. The hero, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), was an upstanding Georgia prosecutor who, some years before, had testified against one Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) in a particularly vicious rape case. The plot thickens when Cady, having served his time, comes looking for revenge, presumably to be inflicted on Bowden’s wife and daughter.
Undeniably disturbing (the original trailers promised moviegoers that they were going to “Feel Fear!”), Thompson’s movie derived much of its frisson from Cady’s antisocial assault on the good-good culture of the fifties. With the judicious Peck seemingly preparing for his Oscar-laureate role as the saintly Southern lawyer in Universal’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which opened six months later, and his wife and daughter (TV personalities Polly Bergen and Lori Martin) so sitcom wholesome, one might well sympathize with the villain —at least at first.
The heavy, deceptively somnolent Mitchum — an action star with a hipster edge, having been busted for pot in the late forties — brought a brute physicality and unprecedented sexual sadism to his characterization. Barry Gifford, who would later pay homage to Cape Fear by incorporating its eponymous location in his meta-noir novel Wild at Heart, calls Mitchum “the angel of death-with-pain, put on earth to give men pause.” But although Cape Fear is as much horror film as thriller — with Mitchum’s virtually unkillable monster anticipating the slashers of the late seventies — there is another, equally disturbing subtext lurking in the film.
Cady wants to spook Bowden before he destroys him, and for much of the movie he is protected by the very law he places himself beyond. Set in the South and released at the height of the struggle for desegregation, Cape Fear conjures up the bogie of a terrifying rapist — albeit white —who proved inconveniently conversant with his “civil rights.” In its nightmarish way, Cape Fear managed to suggest both what terrified the white South and the terror the white South itself inspired. “You won’t forget this movie,” Gifford ends his critique, “especially if you’re a Yankee Jew.”
In general, Cape Fear was received with trepidation. The film’s British opening was delayed until early 1963, while Thompson and Lord Morrison, president of the British Board of Censors, argued over cuts. (The movie was eventually released with six minutes trimmed.) Calling it “a nasty film,” Lord Morrison objected to the sexual threat Mitchum posed to Lori Martin. Nor was the British censor alone. Pit in Variety, Dwight MacDonald in Esquire, and Bosley Crowther in the New York Times all warned readers against bringing their children, Crowther adding that Cape Fear was “one of those shockers that provoke disgust and regret.”
Of course, disgust and regret are scarcely emotions to make Martin Scorsese flinch, and he would doubtless endorse the sense the 1962 movie left that civilization’s veneer is somewhat less sturdy than the shell of an egg.
Scorsese’s Cape Fear opens with the camera rising from the depths of the primordial swamp where all the protagonists will ultimately swim. Although the ensuing sense of beleaguered middle-class territoriality is as strong as ever, the new Cape Fear complicates the moral equation by shifting focus from Max Cady, flamboyantly played by Robert De Niro, to the Bowden family. In this Cape Fear, the Bowdens’ lives are built on quicksand. Scorsese undermines their solidarity, wipes his hands on their reputations, sullies their laundry with a miasma of guilt.
Not simply a concerned citizen, the new Sam Bowden turns out to have been Cady’s public defender against a particularly brutal charge of rape, who buried evidence of the victim’s promiscuity so as not to jeopardize his client’s conviction. The self-righteousness inherent in sensitive Peck has here coalesced into uptight Nick Nolte— a man built to absorb punishment, even as his menacing bulk suggests Mitchum’s. As his wife Leigh (renamed for Janet?), Jessica Lange looks just as classy as precursor Polly Bergen, but she’s considerably more bitter and a lot less supportive. Their teenage daughter Danielle, played by Juliette Lewis, is ripe and disheveled, braces gleaming out of her unformed face. (Does Marty know how to pick them? Not long after Cape Fear‘s release, Lewis replaced Emily Lloyd as the nymphet in Woody Allen’s current project.)
Whereas in 1962 evil stalked the Bowden family from without, the threat is now to be found within. They are, as current parlance would have it, dysfunctional. Leigh not irrationally suspects Sam of having an affair; to block out their screaming, Danielle — who is recovering, it is suggested, from a precocious drug problem—locks herself in her bedroom, flicks on both MTV and the radio, and begins compulsively dialing her Swatch phone, as instinctive an ostrich as the rest of her clan. Meanwhile, his release from prison heralded by a drum roll of thunder, Cady is the return of Bowden’s repressed self — telling him later that while the judge and DA “were just doing their jobs.” Bowden betrayed his trust.
Even more than in the original, it’s difficult not to feel a sneaky sympathy for Cady, particularly when the more physically imposing Bowden is trying to buy him off, or, later, hiring goons to run him out of town. This Cady is less the snake in the Bowden family Eden and more the projection of their unconscious fears. Indeed, he first appears to them in precisely that fashion. Shuffling into a movie house (showing the horror comedy Problem Child), Cady positions himself directly in front of the family, blocks the screen, and, brandishing his cigar while laughing like a hyena, subjects them to what must be the film buff’s ultimate violation. “Dad, you should have just punched him out,” Lewis admonishes Nolte, unaware that they’ve just encountered implacable evil.
Cross splayed across his back, religious mantras inscribed on his arms, De Niro’s Cady is a self-taught psychopath and a refugee from Kafka’s penal colony, as much a mythological beast as any unicorn or yeti. Although it’s tempting to read his character as Scorsese’s revenge on the Christian fundamentalists who attacked The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s difficult to conceptualize the sort of born-again Baptist who would pray to Jesus beneath a Stalin pin-up and augment the scriptures with a combination of Thus Spake Zarathustra and Henry Miller. A two-bit de Sade with delusions of grandeur. Cady sees himself as avenging angel. By opening the family up to his blandishments, Cape Fear has perverse intimations of Teorema as well as Straw Dogs.
Johnny Boy and Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta and Rupert Pupkin have nothing on this nut. With his long black hair slicked back under a white yachting cap, mouth wrapped around the world’s biggest cigar butt, and torso draped in a flaming aloha shirt, De Niro is a cracker from hell. The conception is wildly baroque, and most of the time De Niro’s Cady is more crazy than menacing. Although his tattooed slogans and religious rants evoke Mitchum’s career performance as the psychotic preacher in The Night of the Hunter, De Niro lacks Mitchum’s insolent ease as a performer. His Max Cady is a riff and, half camping on his southern drawl, he never lets you forget it.
The movie, too, is knowing without seeming felt. The rough sex here looks a lot rougher than it did in the original, but is actually less visceral. Where Mitchum cracks an egg on one of his victims, De Niro (like Dracula) takes a bite out of a woman’s face. More overt too is his suggestion, repeated in various contexts throughout the film, that when a rape is reported, it is actually the victim who goes on trial. (Note: Even though Cape Fear opened the very day the American public was transfixed by allegations of sexual harassment and achieved box-office saturation during the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the operative movie metaphor for such cases remained Fatal Attraction. Cape Fear‘s critique is softened by the use of the daughter’s voice-over to frame the movie — the entire nightmare can thus be read as the hysterical fantasy of a teenage girl.)
In the movie’s most daring set piece, De Niro makes a call to Lewis in the guise of her new drama coach (one more instance of subtext overwhelming narrative). The stunt nature of this self-reflexive turn is literalized by having the actor chat on the phone and even cue records while dangling upside down on his chinning bar (eventually the camera flips over as well). It’s followed by another hot-dog scene in which, having lured Lewis down into her high school’s basement and onto the stage where a play is to be rehearsed, De Niro seems determined to out-creep Willem Dafoe’s “seduction” of Laura Dern in Wild at Heart. This fairy-tale sequence in the make-believe gingerbread house (“I’m the Big Bad Wolf,” De Niro begins) has received near-universal acclaim. What’s far more effective, however, is Nolte’s subsequent rage at the nubile daughter with whom he can never quite make eye contact. “Did he touch you? Wipe that smile off your face!” he screams when he discovers what happened. It’s an indignity Gregory Peck never had to suffer — the autumn of the patriarch.
Does it sound as if Cape Fear is overdirected? The movie is undeniably gripping and it certainly looks great. Shot by Freddie Francis, director of the Hammer horror flicks beloved by Scorsese in his youth, it’s a heady succession of extreme close-ups and artful reflections, luridly shimmering sunsets lit by flickers of heat lightning. If an unknown had signed Cape Fear, it would have been heralded as an impressive debut. (Consider the delirious overpraise that greeted Dead Again.) But Scorsese is no twenty-five-year-old retooling antique genres, and more than one observer has attributed Cape Fear‘s manic formalism to the director’s alienation from the material (a similar hyperkinetic frenzy is evident in his last commercial assignment, the 1986 The Color of Money).
Scorsese’s relationship to Cape Fear is, however, more self-conscious and complex. No less than Godard, Scorsese is prodigiously movie-literate. His VCRs work overtime, he employs a full-time film archivist, spends thousands on prints, and has supervised the restoration and re-release of movies as varied as Peeping Tom, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Le Carrosse d’Or. His grasp of film history far exceeds that of most American critics and is far too sophisticated for him to attempt anything so crude as an unselfconscious remake — let alone a heedless obliteration of the original version. If anything, the new Cape Fear assumes that the viewer has seen the earlier one, perhaps even as recently as Scorsese himself.
In effect, Scorsese has taken a piece of hack work and, like the archetypal auteur, filled it with his own directorial touches and perhaps subversive notions of guilt and redemption. Douglas Sirk is quoted in the film. As The Nation‘s Stuart Klawans observed in his suitably ambivalent review, “History robbed Scorsese of the chance to be an auteur in the full, oppositional sense of the term. So now, as compensation, he’s gone back thirty years and inserted himself into a studio product, Cape Fear, giving it the one thing it lacked in 1962 — a star performance by the director.”
The new Cape Fear oscillates between a critique of the original and a variation on a common text: It’s a choreographed hall of mirrors, an orchestrated echo chamber. The first version resonates throughout the second — often literally. Elmer Bernstein stridently reworks the original Bernard Herrmann score. An aged Robert Mitchum appears as the local chief of police, and his deep drawl, first heard over the telephone, haunts the movie. Martin Balsam, who played the police chief in the 1962 version, has here been promoted to judge.
Scorsese’s witty casting includes using the archetypal southern vigilante, star of Walking Tall, Joe Don Baker, as a sleazy private eye whose idea of a mixed drink is Pepto-Bismol laced with Jim Beam. But the film’s vertiginous sense of inversion is completed by the appearance of Gregory Peck as the enthusiastically slippery criminal lawyer who represents De Niro’s smirking Cady. (It’s as if Peck has become what he beheld.) Scorsese’s remake thus contains us own negative image — a trope that’s more than once utilized in the cinematography. Cape Fear’s tumultuous climax — a tour de force for De Niro, Scorsese, and mainly editor Thelma Schoonmaker — completes the role reversals by putting the lawyer Nolte on trial, even while the boat of civilization spins out of control and cracks up on the rocks.
Although De Niro’s final scene is as powerfully crafted an exit as that actor has ever made, the movie — like his performance — is a good deal more spectacular than terrifying, and somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Blood is not an abstraction; De Niro is. (I never thought I’d say this, but what Cape Fear needs is a shot of Paul Schrader — Cady’s particular nexus of evangelical fervor, sexual guilt, and class resentment is more alluded to than fleshed out.) Like the villain, the location lacks specificity: It’s a curiously all-white South.
Budgeted at $34 million, Cape Fear is Scorsese’s most expensive movie, and his first commissioned project since The Color of Money. The project originated with Steven Spielberg, who interested De Niro in playing Cady, who then persuaded Scorsese to undertake a commercial thriller. And indeed, Cape Fear is structurally quite similar to Spielberg’s Hook. A careerist father’s failure to spend quality time with his children brings down a baroque threat to the family that can only be defeated by the father’s capacity for regression. The difference is that Hook is filmically more impoverished, but psychologically far richer.
That absence of pathology seems to have left Scorsese with a guilty conscience. “I think a lot of the pictures I’ve made are good,” he recently told Premiere. “But they’re not The Searchers. They’re not The Red Shoes. The Leopard.”
Although it’s a disservice to consider Cape Fear more than middling Scorsese, the film has received near-universal raves. The major exception is New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty, who, no less hysterical than those who hailed Cape Fear a masterpiece, termed the film “a disgrace . . . ugly, incoherent, dishonest.” Rafferty echoes the original’s reviews — including the brief mention that appeared in the New Yorker back in 1962: “Everyone concerned with this repellent attempt to make a great deal of money out of a clumsy plunge into sexual pathology should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.” And money has been made. Cape Fear, which seems headed for a $70 million domestic gross, needed barely six weeks to surpass The Color of Money as Scorsese’s most financially successful film. (His reassuringly outré follow-up project is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence.)
Directors are manipulative by definition, but I’ve never met a filmmaker more adept at enlisting critical sympathy than Scorsese. “For Scorsese, there’s no such thing as a throwaway,” Peter Biskind wrote in Premiere. “He couldn’t sell out if he wanted to,” enthused Richard Corliss in Time. Their characterizations are not exaggerated; neither is their support unwarranted. Other directors wax self-servingly sentimental about the art of the movies; Scorsese repeatedly pledges allegiance, spending time and money on the job of preservation.
In extolling Nicholas Ray, Godard was reviewing his less than epochal Hot Blood — “a semi-successful film to the extent that Ray was semi-uninterested in it .” Cape Fear is a similar sort of semiotext. More than a critic’s darling, Scorsese is a national treasure — the only director in Hollywood whose devotion to cinema justifies everyone’s notions of popular art. We need him. He needs a hit. Cape Fear is a semi-sacrifice to that faith.

Sight and Sound, February 1992; pp. 8-11


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