DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Cape Fear (1962)

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Cape Fear (1962)

Cape Fear (1962) dir. J Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas


By Alan Bacchus

It came as no surprise that Martin Scorsese’s version of J. Lee Thompson's original classic ‘Cape Fear’ was as closely aligned to the original as it was. Considering his integrity for the history of cinema Scorsese's version was reverential to the original, a masterful remake, tinkering only a few narrative plotting, but just enough to expand and re-evaluate and thus make the film his own.

Going back to J. Lee Thompson’s original film, written by scribe James Webb from a novel by John D. Macdonald, ‘Cape Fear’ plays out a terrifying psychological cat and mouse game between a released criminal hell bent on revenge and the witness that sent him to prison.

After 8 years incarcerated, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) has returned to a quaint town in North Carolina to find and torment Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a humble lawyer and family, who barely even remembers the incident when he testified against Cady for a sexual assault. With utmost steely-eyed intensity, Cady lasers in on Bowden with a force as relenting and focused as ‘the Terminator’. With an education in law from his jail cell, Cady’s revenge is beyond mere physical intimidation, but a psychological torment under the rights of law, which threatens to send Bowden over the edge.

Martin Scorsese’s movie blurs the lines of a hero and villain more than Thompson’s which makes a key delineation between right and wrong, good and evil. In Thompson’s version, in one of the half dozen or so exchanges of dialogue between the adversaries we learn of Cady’s domestic family life which was destroyed by Cady’s incarceration. This background leads to a compelling confession of the effect of Cady’s incarceration on his wife and child who doesn’t exist in the Scorsese/De Niro version.

Some surprising character depth is revealed in the scene after Diane is raped by Cady. The Illeana Douglas character who is named Diane here, is just a random prostitute/barfly who is picked up and beaten by Cady. While it doesn't have any horrific face-biting gruesomeness Thompson directs the scene masterfully nonetheless. We don’t ever see the act, but the aftermath is horrific and the pain visible in the bruises on her face. With direction from Thompson, the shame Diane feels and expresses with few words but emotionally devastating glances to Telly Savalas’s private eye characters is imbued with real-world complex sophistication. Instead of prosecuting, Diane feels shame for succumbing to Cady’s advances which becomes another victory in his calculated psychological games.

Scorsese adds some more depth to the plotting of Bowden’s daughter Leigh. As played by Juliette Lews, she’s less vulnerable and more attracted to Cady’s charm and magnetism. This direct threat to Bowden’s family admirably increases the stakes in the 1991 version and at Cady and Leigh’s first meeting in the vacant high school, allows Scorsese and De Niro to craft a stunning scene of intense stillness.

What Scorsese gains with this scene he loses by removing Thompson’s thrilling chase between Cady and Leigh. It’s a different kind of intensity, Hitchcockian chase action replaced by subversive and teasing sexual terror, capped off with a clever moment of misdirection.

Thompson couldn’t have cast the film better than having Gregory Peck, the righteous Gary Cooper-like integrity. The film was made the same year as ’To Kill a Mockingbird' and the two roles fit into each other naturally. And of course, Mitchum, one of cinema’s great villains, is played with frustrating affability and Southern charm. Though Mitchum is a few inches shorter than Peck his confident swagger, and imposing broad chest and upright posture commands the space even more than his 6’3” frame.

Where Scorsese and Thompson sync up perfectly is Thompson’s constant sense of terror. Even in the daylight, in public places Cady’s amiable presence hides a palpable threat with complete freedom under his rights as a regular citizen. Cady uses the law to his advantage, outsmarting a lawyer, getting under his skin to the point of reversing the stakes and getting Bowden to implicate himself. It’s a brilliant and terrifying psychological game.The escalation of events plays out wonderfully, the intensity, fears and stakes get stronger as the film goes along - a narrative perfection Scorsese was smart not to mess with.

1 comment :

Blair Stewart said...

I hated Gregory Peck in this, stiff as a board.