Thursday, 9 July 2020

Cape Fear (1991)

Robert De Niro terrorises his lawyer's family in Cape Fear

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Robert Mitchum (Lt Elgart), Gregory Peck (Lee Heller), Illeana Douglas (Lori Davis), Fred Dalton Thompson (Tom Broadbent), Martin Balsam (Judge)

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is out of prison after 14 years. He went in as an ill-educated psychotic bum, sent down for the rape and assault of a young woman after his appalled lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) buried evidence on her sexual history that might have lightened his sentence. He comes out as a self-educated, articulate and psychotic force of nature, not sorry for one minute and intent on making Sam and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) pay. 

Scorsese’s remake of J. Lee-Thompson’s deliberately Hitchcock-esque thriller sees the great director go one better by trying to channel Hitchcock’s style as closely as possible. Framing and editing decisions echo Hitchcock, its design apes as much as possible cinematographer Robert Burk’s lensing, Elmer Bernstein remixes the original film’s Bernard Herrmann score into something even more Hitchcockesque than the original. Scorsese throws in several of the master’s favourite themes, with sexual obsession and frustrated, working men forced to defend themselves in extreme situations. Combined with the sort of lavish violence and extreme imagery Hitchcock couldn’t use, we end up with something like an odd film-school experiment, by film students who have watched too many slashers. It’s grim, tasteless, overlong and troubling – and not in a good way.

The film adjusts Nolte’s character from a lawyer and witness against Cady into his corrupt lawyer (no matter that his corruption in this case was well intentioned). The film has a slightly unpleasant concern with modern worries about masculinity, with Bowden now concerned he is not “man enough” to defend his home – the film constantly passes subtle judgement against Bowden’s lack of physical prowess. It also readjusts Bowden into a weasel, corrupt at work and having an affair with a young attorney (whom Cady then beats and rapes later in the film, with a slightly queasy air that she is at least partly culpable by allowing Cady to pick her up in a bar beforehand). To be honest Bowden is hard to sympathise with, and his quest to assert his masculinity rather than rely on the law or hiring others to do his dirty work not really that pleasant. Frankly Nolte was never the actor to engage sympathies in the way original choice Harrison Ford (he wanted to play Cady) would do.

Cady himself is played by Robert De Niro, channelling heavily the original’s star Robert Mitchum (with lashings of The Night of the Hunter) as the sort of articulate psychopath so beloved by film. It’s fun to watch De Niro grandstanding as this sort of violent Tyrannosaur, weaving both psychological and shockingly violent games to unnerve and panic Bowden and his family. The film doesn’t give much scope to make Cady much more than a sort of comic-book monster, but De Niro does at least have moments of reflection in amongst his insanity. And there is a sort of admirable emotional intelligence in Cady’s knack of detecting the underlying tensions in the Bowden’s marriage and family life and exploiting these to torment the family.

The film’s most effective moments are the quieter ones, none more so than Cady’s quiet befriending/seduction of Bowden’s daughter Danielle behind her parents’ back. This culminates in a deeply unsettlingly seduction scene in Danielle’s school hall, where Juliette Lewis (extremely good) fascinatingly and bashfully becomes entranced with Cady’s interest in her teenage reading list and problems with her parents. The sexuality of the scene is possibly even more unnerving today and a highlight of the film – not least, ending as it does, with Danielle sucking Cady’s thumb before kissing him and leaving with the giddy, confused excitement of someone both scared and fascinated. Few other things in the film match this moment for psychological complexity – or the unsettling exploration of teenage sexuality overlapping with rebellion against domineering parents. 

Least of all the film’s overblown and final confrontation between the Bowden family and Cady, in which Cady rises from death no  less than three times and which stretches on forever, jettisoning all the small stock of goodwill the film had built up in its quieter moments. But then this is just part of a film that chooses the graphic and the overblown over calculated and chilling, every chance it gets. It’s a shame as there is a more chilling, psychological terror film – with Cady as a demonically clever opponent – struggling to come out here, but which keeps tripping into slasher territory with Cady as an invulnerable Michael Myers.

Perhaps Scorsese just thought of the whole thing as a sort of cineaste’s private joke? All the Hitchcock references, the careful apeing of styles, even the casting of the original’s leads in small roles (a joke further amplified by casting Mitchum as the police officer, while ultimate straight arrow Gregory Peck plays a lawyer even more corrupt than Bowden). But jokes like this don’t really make for long-term entertaining films, and Cape Fear is so full of basically horrible people doing horrible things to each other (in an increasingly Grand Guignol fashion) that after a while you more than cease caring about it. You start getting actively annoyed by it.

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