Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cape Fear

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Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of the '62 Mitchum/Peck thriller does not rank among his best work. Now, while I don't buy the chestnut that "(Insert Legendary Director's Name Here)'s worst still out-does most directors' best," I do find the failiures of great filmmakers are often just as interesting to see as their successes, to pick apart and see where and how they went wrong. That's not to say Cape Fear is an all-out failiure, beacause it isn't. It ranks among Marnie and Stardust Memories as a flawed masterpiece by a great director.

I haven't seen the 1962 original, so I'm judging the movie purely on its own terms. The story involves Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a psychotic rapist released after fourteen years in prison. Blaming his former public defender Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) for his conviction, he stalks and torments his already considerably dysfunctional family. First following them around, then killing the family dog and savagely beating and raping Bowden's female colleage he then sets his sights on the fifteen-year-old daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Because of studying law books during his sentence, he is able to expertly exploit loopholes during his reign of terror so that the police can't touch him. When Sam's attempts to take the law into his own hands backfire horribly, his family flees in terror to the titular cape, only to find that Max has followed them there. The film is an interesting and table-turning psychological exploration; it shows the family, at first glance, nice and clean like a fifties sitcom, but upon closer examination, rotten with corruption to the very core. Cady, too, at first glance seems like just another thriller loony, but despite the fact that he's completely evil, he's also much stronger, smarter, and more virtuous than the whole Bowden family combined.

Scorsese's great knowledge and love for the films of the past is also on display here - it can be found in all of his movies, though here it is a bit easier to spot. His well-publicized admiration for the Master of Suspense is obvious throughout the first half of the movie, as he takes plenty of opportunities to "play Hitchcock." Bernard Herrmann's score of the '62 film was re-recorded by Elmer Bernstein and used again, along with musical out-takes from Torn Curtain. De Niro's Cady, having been jailed for fourteen years and unaware of fashion changes, has the clothes and hair of someone who just stepped out of a 70's Brian De Palma film, and his tattooed body and psychotic, Bible-reading demenor are reminiscent of murderous preacher Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter. Additonally, very elderly Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck make cameos in the film - Mitch as gruff police lieutenant, and Peck (quite ironically) as an elderly Atticus Finch-style lawyer....only this time, he's defending someone who really did rape and batter several young woman.

The film shoots by at a breakneck speed, which makes the audience feel a part of the frantic, panicking mind-sets of the Bowdens, but it's also all the more jarring when the movie runs over a speedbump. Jessica Lange is one sizable such bump - I've liked her in everything else I've seen, but she seems woefully miscast here, her argument scenes with Nolte and her speech at the end feel forced and fake. Realism is often sacrificed in favor of stylistic flourish, and a film with such an interesting psychological story needs and deserves a little bit more pinning down in the real world to really succeed, not to mention a little bit of down time sprinkled here and there to give the audience a chance to think a little. When Cady and Danielle first meet in the high school auditorium (according to IMDb, a one-take improvised scene between De Niro and Lewis), it's then that subtlety and the two characters playing off one another evoke a feeling of dread unmatched by anything previous, and we think "Now, I'm watching a Martin Scorsese picture!" Even if the gingerbread house/Big Bad Wolf symbolism is a little obvious, it's still a great scene. The whole of the film seems to be an undecided tussle between Scorsese's real "voice", his Hitchcock-borrowed suspsense tactics, and typical 80's/90's studio thriller conventions, and at the end, it's sadly the latter that wins out over the other two. Cady's climactic attack on the Bowden's houseboat during the raging storm abandons psychological study and logic altogether and descends into ludicrous ham-fistedness. De Niro turns from a methodical predator into an unkillable zombie a la Freddy Kreuger, making wisecracks as he's beaten with rocks and lit on fire. By the same token, the Bowdens altogether forget how disturbed and dysfunctional they are and just become another terrorized family from any Hollywood terrorized family movie you can care to think of. It's kind of a sad end to what feels like it should have been a much better film, but for Scorsese fans, it still makes an interesting watch nonetheless.

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