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CAPE FEAR (1991 - R)
Scorsese's remake of the classic thriller simultaneously pays homage to its precedent while innovatively bringing to life a renovated and unique masterpiece. "Cape Fear" is an archetypal thriller that tells of the dysfunctional Bowden family and the many cumbersome trials they must undergo once the relentlessly vengeful ex-con Max Cady decides to hiatus in Cape Fear and keep the Bowdens in close company, wanted or no.
Written by: John D. MacDonald (novel) and Wesley Strick (screenplay).
Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Horror, Drama.
Rated: R for strong violence, and for language, and brief sexual references.
Tagline: The only thing to fear in Cape Fear is fear itself…
The film commences with a nostalgic narration by the young and naïve Danielle Bowden (Juliette Lewis). Likening Cape Fear to that of reminiscence, Danielle speaks of the "sleepy town" and its quaint hermetic novelty as that of a summertime Paradise one is reluctant to leave. But of course Scorcese's artistic direction quickly surfaces a climatic score to the forefront of audience's attention as Danielle's close-up is blurred by an intense infra-red fade-out shot resembling that of blood and bespeaking of ill times to come.
Pan to the routine, albeit slightly dysfunctional Bowden household. In a charming Romanesque mansion the Bowdens reside in Cape Fear as respected citizens and of somewhat celebrity status as Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a reputable law attorney in the small town. Reputable or no, it seems Sam may have a penchant for pretty, younger women and Scorsese's interesting direction reveals the possibility of an illicit love affair between Sam and his young and vivacious coworker.
Meanwhile the more than reclusive Leigh Bowden (Jessica Lange), Sam's wife, seeks solace and meaning in her work as a graphic artist. While she spends her days doodling and sketching upon the multitudes of her canvases within the confines of her sunny terrace-like office, her daughter, the coming of age Danielle, passes her time playing with the family dog and preparing for the new school year. All seems well save for the undeniable tension undermining the surface perfection of the upstanding Bowden household.
To complicate matters a precarious ex-con by the name of Max Cady (Robert De Niro) has just been released from prison; chiseled, ice-cold, ingenious, and bent on an uncanny attraction for the Bowden family. One hot summer night the Bowden’s run into Max Cady at the cinema where the latter’s less than genteel mannerisms provoke the Bowden’s to scoff in disdain and leave the theater early. But once outside the local ice cream parlor the Bowdens, in the midst of their reflection of the precarious creep, suddenly find their ice cream to have been purchased by none other than Cady himself.
Confused as to why Cady has taken a sudden interest in his family, Sam approaches Cady with an inquiry as to his curiosity, which has been expressed in more than disturbing ways of almost stalker-like quality. Apparently Bowden was Cady's former attorney, specifically, the attorney responsible for Cady's incarceration. As a defense attorney, it was Bowden’s responsibility to provide Cady with unbiased and supportive legal assistance. With Max Cad on trial for battery and rape, when Bowden comes across a document that revealed the victim’s sexually precocious behavior, he buries the document out of guilt. The result is an extended sentence for Max Cady: 20 years. Sure that Cady has no way of knowing the truth behind his illegal albeit moral-driven deed, Bowden attempts to buy off Cady as a means of recompense for his 'suffering'.
But Cady insists that Bowden is consciously remaining indifferent to his quest and the simple slogan, "I'm going to teach you about loss" foreshadows Cady’s menacing tirades with the Bowden family. Starting with the dog, which suddenly dies after being poisoned, the nefarious Cady relentlessly pursues the Bowdens, interrogating and stalking them in undetected though disturbing ways. While Bowden is traversing the legal networks of Cape Fear looking for ways to keep Cady at bay from his family, and consequently coming up empty handed all the while, Cady continues to harass the women of the Bowden family, approaching each in an uncannily seductive manner; preying on Leigh’s sexual dissatisfaction with her unfaithful husband, and exploiting Danielle's fragile innocence via literature, specifically Henry Miller's Sexus.
But though his interference with the Cady's seems harmless, though creepy at first, one immediately recognizes a particularly sinister and terrifyingly relentless quality to Cady's interest in the Bowden family, particularly the women. Playing off of the dysfunctional dynamics of the Bowdens, Cady successfully pins father against daughter, father against wife, etc. until there is an all-time tension underpinning a family that suddenly finds themselves, ironically, incarcerated in their own home.
While Sam tries to take matters into his own hands, the almost uber human Cady continues to wreak havoc, displacing family trust, brutally battering Sam's latest mistress, and eventually, murdering the Bowden's housemaid and Sam’s only ally, Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker). Now fugitives, despite their innocence, the Bowden’s go on the run, escaping Cady by means of a riverboat. But the famous climax occurs in the midst of a raging storm as the relentless Cady, who has found cunning ways in which to track the family down, approaches the Bowden's with maniacal ultimatums en route to destination death on the deadly, raging river. With blubbering epistles and roaring rapids ahead its only a matter of time before fate reveals which way the cards will fall for the Bowdens and their arch nemesis, the nefarious Max Cady.
Completely testimonial to Crosse's genius, his trademark stylistic direction aesthetics, and his impeccable attention to detail and artistry, the emblematic climax scene is one of the most memorable and prolific of the genre. De Niro delivers a first rate performance (Oscar nominated even) as the fear-inspiring Max Cady while Lange, Lewis, and Nolte match De Niro's intensity in their portrayal of panic stricken, screaming, desperate victims in the grasp of a cold blooded vengeance-seeking killer. The only question remaining at the end of the film, could it honestly be done any better than this?
Robert De Niro is simply first rate, almost disturbingly so. In fact, one might argue there is hardly room for distinction between De Niro and "Cady" as the former is so wholly immersed in his portrayal of the latter from his stylized Southern drawl, to his burly white- trash-'isms', to his ceaseless maniacal energy; making his version of Cady all the more poignantly distinct from its original and significantly testimonial of character prototype for the thriller genre. As one critic noted of De Niro's performance in contrast to the original by Mitchum: "…there is one scene in which De Niro outdoes Mitchum in terms of sheer impact. It's when… [during the climax] De Niro launches into this fit of screaming nonsense and singing gibberish hymns, insane in a way you'll never be. It's an explosive performance."
Jessica Lange is alluring in her portrayal of the sexual, albeit dissatisfied wife (think the "lipstick" scene here); there is an undeniable mystique that pervades her character and revolves around an observable tension, sometimes sexual, with Cady.
Juliette Lewis simply amazes audience with the freshness and novelty of her remarkably 'mature' performance as the young and naïve Danielle Bowden.
As for Nick Nolte, well, he's classic Nolte; a powerful presence with a certain air of repose, albeit an ambivalent character. His role as the sexually precocious husband (of which the film alludes to his infidelity as 'repetitive'), and an attorney with a disregard for legal procedures is central in creating the heightened tension of moral conflict in the film: though it seems self evident that the Bowden women should be 'pitied', so to speak, the audience is left at a crossroads for much of the film as to exactly what they think the proper ‘punishment’ should be to fit Sam Bowden's many crimes, trivial as they may be in comparison to Cady's. Still, Nolte seems just the man for the part; the voice, the look, the dynamics and presence of his character all typecast Sam Bowden in perfect equanimity to Lange's stellar performance as the wife, Leigh.
Some of the most amazing scenes in the film are easily the "July 4th" scene; testimonial to Scorsese's trademark direction, the film's unique cinematography and artistry, and illuminating of the dynamics of both the Bowden-Bowden and the Bowden-Cady relationships. Also highly memorable and top quality is the climatic river-boat finale for much the same reasons as the former example. Also worth noting is the "theater class" scene which highlights the chemistry between Lewis and De Niro and exploits the important fragilities and truisms of humanity, maturity, and the dynamics of male-female relationships which Scorsese takes care to reveal tactfully and astonishingly disarmingly. In many ways Scorcese’s adaptation is a complete "remake" of the storyline, in so far as the focus from fear instilled by silence (the original) is transformed to fear instilled by the gripping didactic dynamics of chaos presented in the motifs of human-human interaction and man vs. nature.
All in all this "force majeur" adaptation is stellar and was the recipient of much noted critical acclaim. "Cape Fear" was nominated for 2 Oscars: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Juliette Lewis). In addition, "Cape Fear" received 8 other critical award nominations including two Golden Globe nominations; same categories as the Oscar nominations. "Cape Fear" was the proud receiver of the BMI Film Music Award (Bernard Herrmann) and the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Lewis).
NOTE: Keep a look out for multiple cameos from the original cast.
Robert De Niro plays Max Cady, an ex-con with a relentless vengeful streak.
Nick Nolte plays Sam Bowden, Max's former defense attorney and wayward husband of Leigh Bowden.
Jessica Lange plays Leigh Bowden, Sam’s unfulfilled, dissatisfied wife.
Juliette Lewis plays Danielle Bowden, Sam's naïve teenage daughter.
Joe Don Baker plays Claude Kersek, Sam's only ally in the new Cady predicament.