To most cinephiles, linking the word "remake" with Martin Scorsese, one of Hollywood's most original directors and arguably the most outspoken proponent of the film preservation movement, would be an oxymoron. Nothing, it would seem, would be more professionally distasteful (or sacrilegious) to Scorsese than the idea of revamping an older, established movie, no matter its reputation. Yet back in 1991, fresh from the critical acclaim of 'GoodFellas,' and spurred on by the passion of actor Robert De Niro, Scorsese took the plunge and embarked on a redo of the 1962 B-movie thriller, 'Cape Fear,' a tense, gritty exercise in terror that features a chilling performance by Robert Mitchum as a ruthless ex-con seeking revenge on the family of the lawyer (Gregory Peck) who helped put him away. Straightforward and pedestrian, the original 'Cape Fear' succeeds in raising the heart rate but remains artistically undistinguished. In Scorsese's hands, however, the story takes on new complexities, and his stunning visual style punctuates the action, transforming this stereotypical yarn into a dimensional, often dazzling piece of filmmaking.
After serving 14 years in the state penitentiary for rape, hardened criminal Max Cady (De Niro) sets out to track down and torment Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the public defender who represented him. It seems Sam, who was convinced of Cady's guilt, suppressed some key evidence during his trial, which resulted in a far stiffer sentence, and the newly enlightened Max hopes to exact revenge. Initially, Max stays within the law's boundaries, quietly stalking his victim and ramping up stress levels by harassing not only Sam, but also his wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), and their ornery teenage daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Max's intrusion into their lives amplifies the problems in the rocky Bowden marriage, which is rife with resentment, suspicion, and recriminations, and further alienates Danielle, who both withdraws and rebels, ultimately becoming an easy and vulnerable target for the vindictive Max. As the badgering increases, Sam turns to a private investigator (Joe Don Baker) for help and begins to consider harsh measures to evict Max once and for all from their lives.
When I first saw Scorsese's 'Cape Fear' 20 years ago, I remember feeling the film to be a study in self-indulgence, with the director pumping up his technique to distracting degrees and allowing it to interfere with and overshadow the storytelling. Not so this time, much to my surprise and delight. Sure, Scorsese's vigorous use of the camera lends many scenes a muscular flair, thrusting us into the action along with the characters, but even his most audacious "tricks," such as his 360- and 180-degree camera swings, don't really upstage the narrative or performances. 'Cape Fear' is an over-the-top tale, so some of the over-the-top presentation is both understandable and necessary to instill the proper mood.
A few angles are reminiscent of Hitchcock, as is the basic theme of a "typical" family confronting diabolical evil in small town America (remember 'Shadow of a Doubt'?). Even the fireworks sequence, where Scorsese juxtaposes creepiness with natural beauty and sexual longing, exudes a distinct Hitchcockian flair. (Scorsese also wisely uses long-time Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann's original 1962 score [adapted by Elmer Bernstein], which possesses notable 'Psycho' overtones within its highly melodramatic framework.)
Hitchcock comparisons aside, this is still very much Scorsese's film, and he embraces the thriller genre with relish, yet never resorts to the gimmickry and cliches that often cheapen movies of this sort. And by painting the protagonist Bowden family as highly dysfunctional - and therefore ripe for psychological warfare - he exponentially improves upon the original film, creating conflict far beyond the basic premise and infusing more depth into the picture than many straight, non-violent dramas. In fact, the skewered interpersonal dynamics of the Bowdens prove far more fascinating than the more one-dimensional Max and his vendetta.
Yet part of the beauty of Wesley Strick's screenplay is how it gets under Max's skin, too, so we accept his anger and even, however fleetingly, feel sorry for him. Max has spent his time in prison prudently, educating and improving himself, but he's so poisoned by vengeance and a sense of injustice he can't allow himself to assimilate into society. Doomed to wander down a dead-end path, Max seems at peace with his potential fate as long as he can stick it to those who wronged him, but the rare moments when he lets his guard down and allows his true feelings to surface strongly resonate and add an extra wrinkle to this deceptively intricate tale.
De Niro received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his subtle yet brazen portrayal. Blanketed with tattoos and looking leaner and more chiseled than during the fight scenes in 'Raging Bull' a decade earlier, one of America's finest actors transforms himself yet again, this time into evil personified. His lazy Southern drawl and shaggy locks, shit-eating grin and repugnant sneer all contribute to a finely nuanced portrayal that belies the role's showy, cartoonish nature. His scene with Lewis in the high school auditorium is sheer genius, a study in seduction as unnerving and disturbing as you will ever see (and infused with almost unbearable tension by Scorsese). Lewis also received an Oscar nod (in the supporting category) for her superior work as a teen on the cusp of womanhood, fueled by emotions, longings, and frustrations she doesn't totally understand. At times awkward, petulant, insecure, and defiant, Lewis paints one of the most accurate portraits of teenage angst ever committed to celluloid.
Nolte and Lange are equally good. As the cornered attorney, Nolte must not only combat Max's assaults, but also deflect his wife's rage over years of neglect and infidelity and accept his daughter's blossoming sexuality and sense of independence. It's a tricky tightrope to walk, and Nolte, who adopts a confident, macho veneer, nicely expresses the fear, anxiety, and helplessness lurking underneath. Lange lets loose with a fiery, physical portrayal laced with a heartbreaking tenderness that matches up well against all her co-stars, and in a classy salute to the original 1962 film, Mitchum, Peck, and Martin Balsam all enjoy splendid cameos, as a jaded police detective, slimy Southern lawyer, and hard-line judge, respectively.
The white-knuckle, action-packed climax that takes place aboard a wayward houseboat during a driving rainstorm is a cinematic tour de force. Scorsese seamlessly blends matte paintings, miniatures, and set pieces to create an atmosphere of chaos, panic, and primal confrontation that's totally riveting, even as we realize the situation's innate implausibility. It's here that 'Cape Fear' severs its psychological roots and becomes a popcorn-chomping thrill ride of the highest order. You can almost feel what a great time Scorsese is having behind the lens, which makes it all the easier to suspend our disbelief and surrender to his no-holds-barred approach.
'Cape Fear' has aged far better than I expected, and I appreciate its raw power and seething tone far more than when I saw the film during its initial run. Though it will never achieve the status of Scorsese's top tier movies, it remains a solid, arresting thriller with great style and substance. And that's a rare commodity indeed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cape Fear' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The BD-50 dual-layer disc houses the 1080p/VC-1 transfer, and the default audio option is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. When the disc is inserted in the player, a promo for the pocket BLU smartphone and tablet app, as well as Blu-ray promos for 'The Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy,' 'The Change-Up,' and 'Fast Five,' play automatically, followed by the full motion animated menu with music for 'Cape Fear.'
From the opening frames of crystal clear shimmering and undulating water that comprise the mesmerizing main title sequence, it's obvious Universal's 1080p/VC-1 transfer of 'Cape Fear' not only will outclass any previous home video edition of the film, but also will stand on its own as a top-flight high-def effort. Smooth and crisp, with almost no visible grain but still maintaining a definite film-like feel, this impeccable rendering draws us deeper into the picture's uneasy atmosphere, making the tension more immediate and allowing us to fully appreciate Scorsese's bold technique. Even the matte paintings used extensively throughout the movie are seamlessly integrated, only occasionally looking a tad artificial.
The color palette stays slightly muted, yet primaries, especially the red blood, enjoy moments of intense vibrancy. Scorsese employs extreme close-ups to heighten the sense of claustrophobia, and all of them are breathtakingly vivid, whether we're looking at sweaty, careworn faces or sections of De Niro's chiseled physique. Background elements are also distinct, providing a greater sense of depth, and fine details - right down to the most miniscule tattoo on De Niro's heavily inked body - are easy to discern. Contrast is pitched a bit toward the bright side, but is very nearly perfect, with strong black levels and well-modulated whites. Shadow delineation is excellent, and crush is never an issue.
Noise is completely absent, even in the darkest scenes, and no banding or digital doctoring mucks up the pristine image. I did notice a split second of break-up around the 1:36:00 mark when Lange goes out on her balcony, but that's the only real blemish on this excellent transfer. 'Cape Fear' exceeded my expectations and looks absolutely spectacular on Blu-ray. Scorsese fans will love this disc!
'Cape Fear' oozes audio oppurtunities, from the Elmer Bernstein adaptation of Bernard Herrmann's classic score to the stirring storm finale, but unfortunately the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track never quite reaches its potential. Don't get me wrong; the sound scheme is nicely nuanced, clear and full-bodied, with marvelous dynamic range and tonal depth. Dialogue is well prioritized and easy to understand, even when competing with atmospherics, and the ominous music bellows through the various speakers with bright highs and weighty lows. Subtle details shine through well - a ringing phone provides a palpable jolt - and no distortion, hiss, or surface noise disrupt the audio's purity.
Surround activity, though, is rather weak. With so much going on aurally, I expected a lot more output from the rear channels, especially during the storm sequence. Stereo separation across the front helps to widen the sound field somewhat, but a film of this sort demands a more encompassing feel and this track doesn't quite satisfy that craving. It's still good quality audio that sounds terrific on a high-end system, but it never quite matches the power of the visuals, which is too bad.
A nice array of supplements flesh out the disc, all of which previously appeared on the 2001 DVD. An audio commentary is lacking, yet the comprehensive documentary that's included is a suitable alternative.
'Cape Fear' is a gripping tale of revenge, obsession, paranoia, and torment, expertly directed with trademark style and zeal by Martin Scorsese, and well acted by a cast of first-rate thespians. This is one of those rare remakes that actually improves upon the original by heightening tension, expanding depth, and enhancing artistry. Universal's Blu-ray treatment does the film proud with a top-flight video transfer, solid audio, and a nice supplemental package. Even if you're not a Scorsese or De Niro fan, this one earns a solid recommendation.