CAPE FEAR **** USA 1991 Dir: Martin Scorcese. 123 mins
Martin Scorcese’s 90s refashioning of J. Lee Thompson’s comparatively understated 1962 thriller sets out its stall with an in-your-face opening: Robert De Niro’s extensively tattooed, pumped up Max Candy walks from jail to freedom, straight into the camera as melodramatic movie storm clouds brew above. Bernard Herrmann’s menacing original score is powerfully revived by Elmer Bernstein and, in another satisfying throwback, the beautifully strange title sequence is designed by Elaine and Saul Bass.
This time out, a modern sensibility changes the dynamic of the central family. The marriage of adulterous, slippery lawyer Nick Nolte and strong-willed wife Jessica Lange has fractured, and it’s the spineless Nolte’s fault that Cady is now stalking and threatening the family. He tries to pay off the flamboyantly wardrobed psychopath and gets ever more desperate as the threat increases, unsuccessfully using three goons to do a “hospital job” on him. Scorcese never lets Nolte’s unlikeable “hero” off the hook, and the actor’s fidgety, nervy performance is among his best: the Father / Husband portrayed by Gregory Peck in the original now reduced to the disturbing slapstick humiliation of slipping in the blood of his own friend.
De Niro plays it loud and broad as Cady, though the partly improvised, quietly intense ‘seduction’ sequence between him and the daughter (a superb, young Juliette Lewis) is the best scene in the picture. The credibly awkward Lewis and Lange are, in this incarnation of the story, seemingly attracted to the danger and excitement that Cady brings to their miserable existence – and, consequently, prove far more forceful and controlled in how they deal with the threat he poses: while Nolte acts impulsively, panics and resorts to rash acts, his wife takes time to manipulate the antagonist, and Lewis proves resourceful in moments of crisis.
The remake finds time for entertaining cameos from original stars Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam, while ramping up the savagery for the post-THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS audience: the moment in which Cady bites the cheek of Illena Douglas is remarkably vicious for a major Hollywood studio thriller. Wesley Strick’s script errs close to slasher territory as the family dog perishes, De Niro dons drag to garotte private eye Joe Don Baker and the storm set houseboat finale sees Cady becoming almost as indestructible as Jason Voorhees. It’s all thrillingly staged and marvellously cynical, the tone set by Joe Don Baker’s dubious attempt at reassurance: “Savour the fear. The South has a fine tradition of savouring fear”.
Review by Steven West