John D. MacDonald (novel), Wesley Strick (screenplay)
Robert de Niro as Max Cady
Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden
Jessica Lange as Leigh Bowden
Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden
Joe Don Baker as Claude Kersek
It’s extremely rare that a cinematic remake surpasses the qualities of its predecessor. However, Martin Scorsese’s brutal retelling of John MacDonald’s grim tale “The Executioners”, named for film as, Cape Fear 1991 manages to intensify the impact of J. Lee Thompson’s initial 1962 approach to the story. On a general level, the film is just far more unforgiving and sadistic; in part due to Scorsese’s intense approach to film, and in part due to the fact that film limitations were significantly more liberal in 1991. Any way you slice it, Scorsese’s take is the edgier of the two, and in some areas that serves as a massive benefit, while in a few others it’s a bit detrimental.
For a brief rundown of the story I’ll say this: this story comes down to revenge, plain and simple. Sam Bowden is the defense attorney appointed the task of defending known rapist Max Cady. During the case (which we never witness on screen), Bowden “buries” evidence that indicates Cady’s victim was a bit on the promiscuous side, which would, obviously, generate a bit of reasonable doubt amongst the jury. Cady’s sentenced, and serves 14 tumultuous years in prison. We fast forward to a modern day setting, 14 years distanced, and Cady’s targeted Sam, revenge boiling beneath the flesh; Cady will stop for nothing in his mission to extract brutal retaliation upon Bowden and his family.
The story details in Cape Fear 1991 are very interesting, as some key elements of the novel are completely omitted, which, I found a tad strange, considering the relevance of some of these elements is certainly significant: Very significant. Most notably I should note is the complete absence of Jamie, Sam’s son, who takes part in a few pivotal sequences during the novel, in fact, he is what, in essence launches the grand finale; a strange volatile relationship between he and his wife, Leigh is also interesting, as it’s not even close to the chemistry shared between the two as told in MacDonald’s story. However, the mood of the film is such a perfect match to the novel that it’s extremely difficult to complain much. Differentials aside, this film is pretty faithful in regards to direction, character development and overall atmosphere to the source material, and for that I issue respect to Mr. Scorsese, who is truly a legend in this business, thanks to films like Cape Fear 1991.
Speaking of Scorsese, he tosses viewers a curveball himself, exercising some unique camera shots (background and foreground in simultaneous focus, for example) that aren’t exactly typical Scorsese practices. He also implements some very interesting monochromatic maneuvers that prove to be not only surprising, but quite appealing. There are some terrific post productions tactics applied to the feature (love the red screen filter) that really shine as pronounced visuals that certainly leave an impact, no matter how brief. When compared to the bulk of Martin’s work, this film boasts some successful experimentation that emerges more success than fairly. If you’re a dedicated Scorsese fan who may have managed to miss Cape Fear 1991, I’d highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to get a look at some of Martin’s more unorthodox executions; they’re quite the site to behold.
Exploring the on screen performances of Cape Fear 1991 is actually a task I’m looking forward to, so, get ready. First and foremost, Nick Nolte is spectacular as Sam Bowden. Having been stalked by a psychotic ex-convict addicted to methamphetamines some two years ago (it’s a long story, but if you’d like to hear it, hell send me some messages and I’ll give you a blog divulging details), I understand the paranoia that comes with life threatening scenarios. To be extremely blunt: it’s some legitimately scary shit. There is no other way of putting it. Nolte projects a frantic paranoia that not only fits the characters pre-written perimeters it comes across as valid and deeply believable. No one wants to be stalked by an unpredictable individual that’s adopted the institutionalized mentality that leads to anything and everything imaginable; believe me.
But cast praise extends far beyond Nolte himself. Robert de Niro, who portrays the Cape Fear 1991 antagonist, is absolutely terrifying, unnerving and mortifying. I’ve long believed that his portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (another Scorsese feature, may I add) was de Niro’s finest work, but honestly, having revisited both recently, his work as Max Cady in Cape Fear may actually be a more frightening and defining moment, though by no significant margin, I assure you. No matter how you break it down de Niro exceeds haunting in this feature. Frightening isn’t an adequate enough word, unsettling falls far short… petrifying may be the only word to fit this performance (the rape scene is unbelievably shocking, while the alley attack and conclusive scenes act as true jaw droppers). I wish I could extend a wealth of praise to Jessica Lange, but I’ve got a few personal issues with her performance. First, I should note that the new dynamics of this relationship obviously call for a pungent presentation, there’s no doubt of that. However Leigh is just too manic, too early. We’re not even half an hour into the picture before Lange’s performances plunges from sensible to erratic and, a tad cringe worthy. Her overall response to the happenings around her are justified, but the buildup is completely disregarded, henceforth viewer’s witness an average wife transform into a completely manic mess in twice the time one might expect. I still love Jessica, but Cape Fear 1991 isn’t, in my opinion, her greatest performance. A quick nod to Joe Don Baker as well as Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (of the original picture) should not be omitted.
To wrap this review up, I’d like to confront the Cape Fear 1991 entire final act. There’s a remarkable difference between what you’ll see on screen, versus what you’ll read in MacDonald’s novel (which I highly, highly recommend you read: it’s fantastic!). Initially I wasn’t completely convinced the complete distancing from the source material was a wise choice; over time, I’ve changed my mind. MacDonald offers a great climax to his tale, though it admittedly offers a less rewarding final sequence. It is in truth, a bit anticlimactic when compared to Scorsese’s conclusion to Cape Fear 1991, which is totally, and completely different. This is one of those rare instances in which an adjustment to source material actually pays off…again, all I can do is praise Mr. Scorsese.