Universal // 1992 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 24th, 2011
There is nothing in the dark that isn't there in the light. Except fear.
"Every man has to go through hell to reach paradise."
The violent, mentally disturbed, heavily tattooed Max Cady (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver) has just been released from prison, and he's got vengeance on his mind. His target: former public defender Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder), who refused to use a key piece of evidence to defend Cady some fourteen years ago. Sam is understandably concerned about the safety of his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange, Titus) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers), so he attempts to take measures to protect his family and get his stalker back behind bars. Unfortunately, Cady's as intelligent as he is dangerous, and getting rid of him proves to be an extremely difficult task. Who will win this ever-escalating conflict?
Remakes are being churned out at such a rapid rate these days that complaining about the trend seems a bit fruitless at this point. We all know that remakes and sequels are regarded as safer bets than original stories, and we all know that the majority of remakes tend to fall short of whatever standard may have been set by the original. Still, every now and then we'll get something that manages to transcend its inspirations: Cronenberg's The Fly, The Coens' True Grit or Carpenter's The Thing, for instance. However, the film that first springs to mind whenever I think of remakes which are actually better than the originals is Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, which improves upon the entertaining 1962 version in almost every way.
J. Lee Thompson's original Cape Fear was a simple thriller with a simple premise: a bad man oppresses a good man's family. The film was black-and-white in more ways than one, with reliable pros Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum respectively embodying forces of good and evil. Scorsese's version dispenses with all that simplicity very quickly, giving Cady a warped sense of righteous vengeance and transforming Sam Bowden into a deeply flawed character who brings most of his problems upon himself. This time, the tale is in lush, pulsating color (featuring striking bursts of red that distinctly recall Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, another thriller that often grew fixated with its psychological elements).
Cape Fear was initially intended as a pretty straightforward commercial thriller (Steven Spielberg was actually attached to direct at one point), but you sense Scorsese vigorously shaking the mundane conventions and blandly palatable elements out of it. His direction is classical yet feverish, and Elmer Bernstein's re-working of Bernard Herrmann's score turns moody intonations into violent bursts. There's also a sense of desperation to the way in which the film flings so many unusual ideas (Cady seems to have adopted Robert E. Lee and Captain Marvel as personal heroes), visual gimmicks (those creepy x-ray eyeball shots) and unexpected nuances (Danielle encounters Cady and develops a crush on him) at us, but everything gels satisfyingly in retrospect. By all accounts, the filmmaking process was a stressful and challenging one for the director, but the end result is a terrific piece of filmmaking which foreshadows his similarly excellent work nearly two decades later on Shutter Island.
Those who need a reminder of De Niro's capability to be an electrifying screen presence might consider giving this one a watch (or re-watch), as the actor's terrifically creepifying turn as Max Cady remains hypnotizing. Crowing his lines in a dirty southern accent and glowering like a man about to burn down the mental institution, De Niro makes Cady an effectively savage monster. Even so, the character is quick to remind us of the fractured logic of his cause: he wasn't given proper legal representation simply because Sam didn't like him, and his life was destroyed as a result (never mind the fact that Cady was guilty; the law is the law). Why should Sam be surprised when Cady is trying to destroy his life for the same reason?
Scorsese initially wanted Harrison Ford for the role of Sam, but Nolte is probably a better fit. The actor is effortlessly able to sell his barely contained rage and his willingness to wander down a slippery slope of increasingly unethical territory. Lange transforms a potentially disposable role into something riveting as the wife who has had just about enough of her husband's antics, while Lewis excels in a spectacularly icky scene of improvisation with De Niro midway through the film. Joe Don Baker is in top form as the cheerfully grubby private eye Sam hires, while Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum make strong impressions in brief supporting roles (Mitchum kills his bemused final line: "Well pardon me all over the place.").
Cape Fear (Blu-ray) sails onto hi-def sporting a surprisingly terrific 1080p/2.35:1 transfer (Scorsese's first use of the 2.35:1 format, in fact). Scorsese's use of color is consistently fascinating, and the imagery really pops on this new disc. The level of detail is superb throughout, and you can see every little line of De Niro's tattoos (another Mitchum gem: "I don't know whether to look at him or read him.") and every crease in Nolte's worried face (admittedly, there are about 3000 fewer of these than his face contains these days). Blacks are rich and inky, shadow delineation is impressive (the chaotic nighttime action sequence at the end is thrillingly coherent in hi-def) and flesh tones are natural. There's a light layer of natural grain present throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also excellent, and I have to admit that I'm amazed how fantastic Bernstein's score sounds. The soundtrack CD is kind of disappointing, as the music sounds distant and somewhat poorly recorded. However, the film mix is vigorous and room-rattling. The busier material is pretty immersive and the final twenty minutes pack quite a punch. Supplements are ported over from the previous 2-disc DVD: an 80-minute documentary on the making of the film, some deleted scenes, a very brief "Behind the Scenes of the Fourth of July Parade" featurette, a photograph montage, a matte paintings montage, a handful of Saul Bass opening credits for others films and a trailer. Exclusive to this version, you get BD-Live, My Scenes and Pocket Blu.
Cape Fear is often unfairly dismissed as lesser Scorsese; it was branded as such by many upon its release due to the fact that it was the director's follow-up to his great Goodfellas. This is a terrific thriller boasting some magnificent acting and directed with a stylish sense of appreciation for cinema history. The Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent, too.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Credit Sequences
* Pocket Blu
* My Scenes