Runtime: 2 Hours
and 8 Minutes
Yes, I have gone Scorsese crazy. It can't be helped, really. He rules.
He's one of the finest directors ever to come down the pike. For years
I heard about him, heard his name mentioned over and over and over
again, but I never understood what made him so great. Then I saw "Taxi
Driver" and I thought "oh, so THAT's what they're talking
about". Then I saw "The
Last Temptation of Christ" (great, but not as great as Jones
makes it sound...sorry, Jones) and I realized that he's pretty good.
I loved "Bringing Out the Dead".
I thought "Goodfellas"
and "Raging Bull" were
just about as good as movies get. I liked "Casino" a lot.
And "The Age of Innocence"
is surprisingly excellent.
The first film of his that I saw, however, was "Cape Fear".
So I decided to revisit the other day, seeing as how I am a maniac
and all. (At least I am man enough to admit it.) And it holds up amazingly
well. Is it "Goodfellas"?
No. Is it "Taxi Driver"?
Nope. "Raging Bull"?
Uh uh. But it is a great, creepy piece of work that might make you
look under the car before you go somewhere. Watch the movie, that
will be explained. It will make you look over your shoulder a little
more than before. And it will make you even more suspicious of men
I have never seen the original, so I cannot compare and contrast the
two movies. I know that the villain in the piece was originally played
by Robert Mitchum, so I hesitate to say that De Niro makes his Max
Cady one of the most menacing villains in screen history. I hesitate
because, after all, Robert Mitchum played one of the two or three
other great villains in cinema history when he played the insane and
morally depraved (not to mention chilling and vicious and hypocritical
and all-around evil) preacher in "Night of the Hunter".
Mitchum is unsettling as all hell in that movie. But De Niro will
give you a few chills here as well. Damn, he's spooky. Not so much
in the fact that he is bent for revenge and single-minded. It's his
determination, his commitment to his task, and the way he appears
sane to all those around him that makes him such a chilling presence.
Much of the time he looks a lot more sensible and sane than the story's
protagonist (Nick Nolte).
You see, Max Cady has spent fourteen years in prison for raping and
severely beating a young woman. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) was his lawyer.
When Max learns that Sam buried evidence of the young woman's promiscuity,
he is understandably pissed. And he is out for nothing less than revenge.
De Niro has a way around a threat that buries it deeply within your
psyche. He gets under Nolte's skin and, pretty much, makes Nolte's
own concerns and worries and neuroses a lot scarier than what Max
actually does. Nolte's paranoia is his biggest adversary, something
which makes it hard for the cops to believe Sam's side when Max actually
does begin to tighten the screws.
The film is so good that it could be a textbook study in the establishment
of suspense. Scorsese has always been a master of visual composition,
and this film is no exception. There are several images that will
haunt you forever after seeing the film (they've stuck in my head
for quite some time) though I really can't disclose many of them without
ruining some of the film's most elegant surprises and shocks. There
are many deliciously sinister moments in this film. Enough that you
may find yourself slowly curling into the fetal position on your couch
as you watch the film unfold. The film builds suspense like an architect
building a house: brick by brick, first innocently, then gradually
bigger and bigger until it's almost intolerable. The violence in this
film, unlike most films like this, has a genuine impact and rattles
the viewer. We dread the violence, rather than rooting for the next
death like in a "Scream" movie. Nolte is great as the protagonist
who, sometimes, does worse things than the villain. He cheats on his
wife, he worries, he busts his daughter for smoking pot when he has
worse than that in his own past, and he has, after all, taken a holier
than thou stance that has robbed a man of fourteen years of his life.
We see why he did it (few of us, I think, would want a man like Cady
running around outside a set of bars) but it's still a shitty thing
to do and it gives the villain something that most movies don't bother
to establish: a reasonable motive.
Nolte is good, as always, and De Niro is a sinister force to be reckoned
with, but the ladies in the picture are also quite effective. Jessica
Lange is great as Cady's worried and ballsy wife, a woman trapped
in a marriage she isn't quite happy with who now has a new and more
tangible reason to hate her husband. And Juliette Lewis is great as
their messed up teenage daughter: alternately sweet, seductive, strong-willed,
shy and a little creepy herself. You never understand until the end
where her loyalties lie, and this adds another dimension of suspense
and discomfort to the goings on. This is creepy stuff.
Scorsese directs this film (his first straight out thriller, I believe)
with such skill and finesse and flourishes that one is reminded of
Hitchcock in his prime. I know that is a bold statement: Scorsese
earns it. Also great is the resuscitation of Bernard Herrman's amazing
score from the original film. They could never have written better
music. Scorsese and Elmer Bernstein both knew it. So they wisely chose
to go with the work of a master. And, Man, does it pay off. It just
reminds you of what film music has been reduced to. Herrman was a
genius with a musical score and "Cape Fear" is a stunning,
haunting example of what the man could do in his prime. (Note: Scorsese
did, after all, work with the man himself on "Taxi
Driver", another thing that adds resonance and makes it seem
less unseemly to recycle a man's work.)
Bernstein does a magnificent job of recreating it. I also liked the
way that Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (the antagonist and protagonist
of the original film) made their way back for small roles in this
one. Both men have still got it and it's a pleasure just to see them
working again. It's a pity that neither of them work anymore, though
I'm sure Mitchum's being dead has more than a little something to
do with that. I also liked that Peck's courtroom suit looks nearly
identical to his duds in the courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird".
Nice touch that was not lost on me.
Sure, the movie does go a little off the rails near the end (but by
that point so has De Niro's character, so it's forgiven) but it still
packs a rollicking punch. And the sight of De Niro trying to seduce
Nolte's daughter or speaking in tongues or...well, any number of unsettling
sights, might never fully leave you. It's been a long time since a
film oozed this much menace. And few characters have been as sheer
menacing as Max Cady. Truly a man that I would not want to meet in
a dark alley.
Not even with a lead pipe or a bicycle chain.