Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cape Fear (1962)

A Classic Cinematic Chiller

- Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a stand-up citizen with a wife, daughter, lucrative career as a lawyer, nice home, and high standing in the community. No different than helping an elderly woman cross the street was Sam's incarcerating testimony against a man guilty of assaulting a woman; little did Sam know that the man, a criminal nutjob named Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), would come after his family when released from prison.

What is scarier than being relentlessly stalked and threatened by a murderous madman? The 1962 classic Cape Fear preys on this relatable fear and encapsulates the chilling Hollywood thriller better than most.

One of the best film composers of all-time (and Hitchcock film scoring veteran), Bernard Hermann, composes a haunting piece of music that embodies the fear and desperation of Sam Bowden's nightmare. With dark melodies, harsh tones, and a particularly spastic horn section, Hermann's score is a constant reminder for the audience that death is dangerously lurking inside every shadow. Cape Fear begins with the highly recognizable and stirring musical number that immediately scares its audience to death - it will not be the last time.

A well-learned student of Hitchcock, director J. Lee Thompson forms Cape Fear into a gripping thriller with suspense galore waiting around every corner. Thompson also tosses in one great shot into the film after another, whether it is through the creation of high suspense through an ambiguous serious of on-screen images, his use of hiding faces in thick shadow or the way the camera follows a character as they take flight. Thompson's stylish and emotional fingerprints are an essential component to this great film but he was also fortunate to have such a brilliant cast to act out this chilling story of good vs. evil.

Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum might only get second billing when the credits roll but make no mistake: he is the entire frightening show. When people refer to Max Cady as "an animal" throughout the film, it is not just an example of nasty name-calling. Mitchum is quite literally a vicious monster: he prowls, slithers, and altogether acts and thinks in an inhuman way. The only difference between Cady and a wild animal is that a wild animal does not have the capacity for problem-solving intelligence. While unstable, Cady is in fact smart and actually plans out his evil actions, making him all the more dangerous. But Mitchum is not just scary in the things his character does, he is also scary in the way he talks and holds himself upright. Needless to say, Mitchum gives an incredible performance - the audience completely forgets about all the times they have rooted for and felt safe around Mitchum's tough guy anti-hero protagonists in the past because he is such a  terrifying force in Cape Fear.

Mitchum's powerful showing is the film's focal point; however, fellow Hollywood legend Gregory Peck also gives a strong leading performance in Cape Fear (while also fullfilling his duties as one of the film's co-producers off-screen). On paper, the Sam Bowden role is pretty tame and colorless; however, thanks to Peck's strong screen presence, Bowden becomes a memorable character even next to the unforgettable Max Cady character through a steadfast subtlety. Despite a roaring Robert Mitchum co-star stealing every scene, Peck effortlessly rallies the audience to his character's cause with a career highlight of his own.

While the two leads dominate the screen, Cape Fear is also full of great supporting performances. Polly Bergen cannot help but be beautiful in the film but she also gives a rather intense performance as Sam's wife Peggy, Martin Balsam does well in his helpless Police Chief role, and a pre-lollipop sucking Telly Savalas gives a good performance as Private Eye Charles Sievers. However, Lori Martin does not consistently offer up the best of performances in her role as Sam's daughter Nancy. In many instances throughout the film, the physical aspects of Lori's acting fail to put a cap on some of the more suspenseful scenes. However, she is not completely unwatchable - or even bad - throughout the film, often convincing as a terrified child and hardly taking anything away from the overall quality that Cape Fear has to offer.

Accompanied by many high-quality elements, Robert Mitchum's brilliant yet cruel acting and J. Lee Thompson's right on the money direction especially makes Cape Fear an incredibly thrilling film. Its just-as-popular 1990s remake does not begin to do it justice but few films in general can touch the stylish but uneasy and down-right frightening feeling of 1962's Cape Fear.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Cape Fear (1991)

Be Afraid


- I really do not want to compare Martin Scorsese's 1991 Cape Fear remake to the 1962 classic of the same name. However, upon reviewing the 1991 version, I find myself unable to stop the inevitable. Not only am I a huge fan of the Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck-starred Cape Fear, therefore seeing the resemblances due to my familiarity with the original, but when Scorsese recreates scenes that look completely lifted out of the original film (Cady taking the keys out of the ignition, dog dying) and even uses Bernard Herrmann's score throughout the entire film, I am not exactly given a lot of options! When comparing Scorsese's version of Cape Fear to the classic original version, the remake comes out destroyed by the classic; but even when taking the film by itself, it is still bad.

While some scenes are dead ringers of the original, Scorsese and screenwriter Wesley Strick did not just remake the 1962 Cape Fear scene-for-scene; clearly, they tried to do things differently. Unfortunately, this is one of the film's problems. Gone is the original crazy and animal-like Max Cady who is out for personal revenge. The Max Cady in the 1991 version is a religious fanatic
in touch with his "feminine side" (his words, not mine) who is out to "save" Sam Bowden. Also gone is the stand-up and strong Sam Bowden seen in the classic Cape Fear film. The Sam found in the 1991 remake is unintentionally very goofy; a distrustful, unethical and altogether unlikable man. Even Mrs. Bowden is a completely different character - she is crazier than Max Cady is!

The overall story has also been changed around: Sam did not testify against Cady in court to put him in jail like in the classic version, Sam is now Cady's ex-lawyer who Cady suspects of not doing all he could to keep him out of jail and is out to "save" him from himself. So much for the age-old story of good vs. evil. The overall story has been changed for the worse but the overall script is simply shoddy in general. Other sub-plots have been thrown into the mix that not only distract from the bigger picture but are also just poorly conceived. The film also includes a few frankly absurd scenes and is filled with apathetic and even ridiculous lines that you cannot take the least bit seriously. These aspects take away from the film's supposed dangerous and thrilling nature but they are not the only factors in this process.

The classic version of Cape Fear was extraordinarily filmed with brilliant lighting and a powerfully effective suggestive subtlety combined with a barefaced brutality that delivered thrills when the film called for it and a sense of danger throughout its entirety. However, Scorsese is unable to do any of this in his Cape Fear, giving the film a cookie-cutter early 1990s look with no sense of danger, no suspenseful scenes, and little style (Scorsese even resorts to animated fire). As one might expect, there is some gruesome violence in the film; however, one might not expect it to shriek of stereotypical examples of the worse that Scorsese can offer. Clearly, too much effort was put in to make Cape Fear bigger and badder than the original. All of Scorsese's uber-violence ends up empty and all shock but no awe and in some cases, most notably De Niro taking a bite out of Illeana Douglas' cheek, the violence is so over-the-top that it is impossible to take seriously.

If all of this was not enough, the acting is far, far from fantastic. Robert De Niro (somehow securing an immortal Academy Award nomination for his performance) begins the film semi-impressive and imposing as Max Cady but grows progressively worse throughout the film until he gathers laughs instead of scares by the end of the film. The opposite occurs during Jessica Lange's performance of Mrs. Bowden, as she goes from overacting her character's batshit crazy anger for most of the film to giving a convincing display of fear and desperation towards the end.

As Sam Bowden, Nick Nolte remains constant throughout the whole film: beige.

Juliette Lewis (receiving the more deserving Oscar nomination of the film) is decent enough in her role as Danielle Bowden; however, she is unfortunately called upon to play a really stupid character. While Lewis convincingly plays up the character's understandably fear from the situation, it is ultimately hard for the viewer to relate or sympathize with her because of her character's questionable thought process.

This film seems to be counted often by film critics and fans alike as one of the few good Hollywood remakes.... And I cannot figure out why. I wanted to like it; I really did - if a remake of Cape Fear is to exist, I would rather like it as much as the original - but I could not. Containing nothing to be great on its own and being particularly crushed by the unavoidable comparison to the original Cape Fear, I found Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear to be a very bad film indeed. The best things about the film are Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck in their short supporting roles - go figure.

CBC Rating: 4/10