Cape Fear (1991)

Cape Fear (1991) movie poster

director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 01/03/2014

Overall, I don’t really recommend doing this.  Watching a classic film followed right afterwards by its remake.  Well, even a not-so-classic film.  The last time I did this was Fright Night (1985) / Fright Night (2011).  One reason, if for no other, not to do this is simply the repetition of the story elements.  It’s better, probably, to separate the two viewings.

But I chose to watch Cape Fear (1962) and Cape Fear (1991) because they were available together On Demand from Movieplex and it had been a long time for me with both films, and though the remake wasn’t very good, it was by Martin Scorsese so seemed worth the revisiting.

Back in 1991, I recall seeing Cape Fear at a $2 movie theater in Colma, CA.  It was kind of a big film at the time and got some Oscar buzz.  I hadn’t seen the original film.

Well, frankly, one can sort of see why Scorsese would think there was something to remaking this film about a child-rapist tormenting the family of an attorney who helped put him in prison.  In 1962, for instance, they couldn’t even say “rape”.  The sexual malice and violence is largely suggested but not depicted.  And the stalking aspect of the narrative has become more understood and defined as a crime.  And lastly, what if the moral ambiguity was added in to the attorney character that Gregory Peck had played as the most upright of American citizens?  He cheats on his wife.  He is a somewhat corrupt lawyer.  And the teenage daughter…she’s not just some cute thing but sexually precocious.

Well, let’s put it this way.  Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck versus Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte (?)  As good as De Niro is, he can’t match Robert Mitchum’s outstanding portrayal of sleaze.  But Scorsese does get Mitchum and Peck back in the film.  Mitchum actually has a fairly substantial role.  This is typical tip-of-the-hat stuff these days when doing a remake.

The whole film strains hard to develop menace and presence, but it’s nowhere the film the original is.  None of the inventions are better, save one: Juliette Lewis as the teen.  It’s funny but I remember finding her annoying back in 1991, but recalled some critic who raved about her (can’t remember who now).  And I get it more now.  She’s a very believable teen, with more ambivalence and less purity, though no less innocence.  She’s certainly a creature of her time in contrast with the daughter of the 1962 film.  She’s the one element of improvement.

Unsurprisingly (especially since I sort of remembered it correctly – but anyways), the film ends with the more jaded pessimism where the villainous De Niro has to perish for his crimes.  He’s not killed outright by Nolte, but it’s more violent, packed with more action (it’s storming on Cape Fear in this version), and grittier.

Really, when I thought it through, it’s less the direction and acting (still Nick Nolte? He’s not bad but just seems wrong) but the script that is the problem.  It’s the take on the story and the characterizations.  You can see how they tried to rework the material, not simply to modernize it but to give it unique differences.  It’s just that it’s a flawed effort.  Quite flawed, in my opinion.  Particularly in comparison with such an excellent original.

It’s the damned if you do issue with re-makes: you’re damned if you do it.

But a pretty nice piece of 1990’s style and fashion for those into that sort of schadenfreude.

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