Sunday, October 25, 2009


Years before it became trendy to remake seemingly every old horror movie in existence, Martin Scorsese reintroduced Cape Fear to modern film audiences. We will get to that one shortly. But we must start with the original black-and-white version that was released nearly thirty years prior. This dark, Hitchcockian masterpiece is one of my favorite suspense thrillers and it’s never gotten old in my book.

Gregory Peck is Sam Bowden, a lawyer who has everything a man of the early ‘60s could want—money in the bank and a big house on the nice side of town. He is of high social standing, with a pretty wife and a daughter who probably wouldn’t know teenage rebellion if it grabbed her ass. Speaking of which, a relic of Mr. Bowden’s past has resurfaced and plans to screw up everything ol’ Sam has going for him. Robert Mitchum is Max Cady, a convicted rapist sent to jail by Bowden’s eyewitness testimony. After eight years behind bars, Max is back with bad intentions on his mind. But Cady is crafty. He studied the law as a convict and is using it to his advantage. Whatever he does to torment Sam and his family is perfectly legal. Stalking laws didn’t exist back then.

While Max Cady follows the law, Sam tries to find ways to bend it, if not outright break it. When his friends on the police force object to arresting Cady on suspicion alone, Bowden hires a private detective to follow the ex-con’s every move. Cady beats up and rapes another woman, but she doesn’t want to relive it by testifying in court. The private eye suggests hiring a few thugs to beat some sense into Cady, and Sam eventually agrees to it. But Cady thoroughly trounces his assailants. Fearing for their safety, Sam takes his family to their houseboat on the Cape Fear River. And then the showdown.

The support cast also includes Martin Balsam (Psycho) and Telly Salvalas when he still had hair. As Max Cady, Robert Mitchum doesn’t need a bunch of tattoos and profanities to come off as a bad motherfucker. All he needs to do is stare. Whether it’s an air of casual disinterest towards Sam Bowden or leering at his wife and teenage daughter, you just know that Cady has bad intentions on his mind. His threats are subtle, but effective. This man isn’t one to sell wolf tickets. I like the subtlety the most. Chalk some of that that up to the time Cape Fear was originally released. The censor boards wouldn’t have allowed for certain aspects of the story to be depicted. I like the idea of not showing or discussing the actual act of rape. A lot of women out there probably agree that scenes of rape are difficult to watch, so the psychological approach is better in that regard. From the battered woman to the threat of sexual assault on a child, you know what the deal is. But you can’t call it for what it is because it’s so reprehensible. And you feel worse inside because of it. The strength that Cape Fear has is not in what it says, but what is implied.

Martin Scorsese wasn’t so into implying it, I guess. His remake goes for the throat where the violence and creepiness is concerned. Still, his rendition of Cape Fear turned out very well, if a little over the top. While my friends were going to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day a million times that summer, I was watching Cape Fear on the big screen. And I don’t mean TV.

Some of the story elements have been changed. The main point is that everyone has flaws. Max Cady knows all about that. During his fourteen years as a convicted rapist, he taught himself how to read. Feeling like his public defender didn’t do his job, Cady studied the law to appeal his case. Sam Bowden was that public defender and no, he didn’t do all he could to keep his client out of jail. Back then, a woman’s “questionable” sexual history was often used as grounds for a lighter sentence or acquittal in sexual assault cases. Knowing that Cady was guilty, Bowden buried a report that could have been used in this fashion. Of course, this is a direct violation of Max Cady’s constitutional right to a proper legal defense in court. The bad guy was actually done wrong by the good guy for once.

When he is finally released from prison, Max comes out a Bible-quoting scumbag tattooed with scripture referring to vengeance. And what a time to seek vengeance on his old lawyer. Cheating on his wife with co-workers nearly ruined Sam Bowden’s career, and he and his family have relocated to start anew. But his wife still has trust issues, and rightfully so. There are already signs of Sam reverting to his old habits. Sweet Sixteen is just around the corner for their daughter Danny, who slips back and forth between rebellious, awkward, and sexually curious. And they thought they had trouble already… Max Cady’s behavior is a bit bolder this time around, as is to be expected. He assaults the same woman that was on the verge of having an affair with Sam. Then Cady ups the ante by calling Danny and pretending to be her new drama teacher. He approaches her at school, and the private lesson taught is one that reaffirms Cady’s sick fuckin’ bastard status.

Nice to see Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam in support and cameo roles here. Joe Don Baker is great as the private detective, especially during a verbal joust with Cady outside of a restaurant. Max Cady is of course played by the great Robert DeNiro. Throughout most of the movie, he does a great job letting the viewer know just how much of a bad motherfucker Cady is. Few can do it the way DeNiro can. But then there are the times when his performance degenerates into what one could call a parody of the irrational. When Cady is injured during his final attack on the Bowden family, he finally becomes just another horror movie killer. And that isn’t what you wanted to see. It sure is, uh, interesting to see Martin Scorsese resorting to stylized techniques and unnecessary slasher film ploys. A different director would have hung their hat on Cape Fear using the same approach. But this is Martin Scorsese, and it’s funny how standards work. Compared to the obvious classics on his resume, this isn’t one of his better movies. And maybe that’s the point after all: that even the great Martin Scorsese has flaws.


tenderloinstew said...

I agree. I bought this package deal at Costco at watched both films on the same day, and Mitchum is scarier. DeNiro is frightening, but you can see him sweat. He snarls and howls and puts on a big show. Mitchum just floats up on you like he's asleep and then CHOMP.

But I do like the mood and stylization of the Scorsese film. The fireworks at night, the bold use of the original score. Like you said, it would be a classic if we didn't hold Marty to such a high standard.

Nice blog. I takes a certain kind of obsessiveness to keep at it with so little feedback, and I salute you.

The Evil Eye said...

There's a package deal with both versions? I did not know that. What a great way to get acquainted with Cape Fear. If my VHS tapes ever deteriorate to the point where they need to be replaced, I'll certainly look into that.

Thanks for the comment. It's always nice when others step up and look at things through The Evil Eye, and tell us what they think!

tenderloinstew said...

You know, I might be mistaken about that. I bought it at Costco, and they may have been the ones who packaged the two DVDs for sale as a set.