Is Cape Fear the best remake ever? I’d have to dig deeper to see if anything else can hold a candle to it, but at this moment, I think it may be true. Until last week, I had never seen either adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners. So in the interest of knocking two iconic films off of my shame list while simultaneously chipping away at my short list of unseen Scorsese, I decided to give them both a shot.
At a time when remakes are a dime a dozen, it feels downright eerie how much love and care was put into this incredible project. Since the original 1962 film was more of a cult item than a mainstream success, the updated production had a bit more leeway than the remakes of today. Not only was it absent an enthusiastic fanbase to cater to, but it could easily get away with not purporting to be a remake at all. Even today, a mention of the title only evokes reverence for the remake. J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear is known, but seemingly only because of Scorsese’s update. Scorsese’s Cape Fear ended up being the one to endure. It became the cultural item. It’s the one that gets quoted; the one that gets recognized. It’s even been referenced on The Simpsons, and more recently, on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This has everything to do with the unique way this particular remake was assembled.
First and foremost, let’s talk about how it handles the weight of being a remake of a very good film. Supposing there were rabid fanboys and fangirls hoping to see a bit of fan service in a remake, they wouldn’t go home disappointed. Both Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck have roles in the remake, neither of which is a novelty wink and nod. Mitchum (the original Max Cady) plays Lieutenant Elgart, the policeman who is sympathetic to the needs of the victimized family. He’s more than willing to help out the Bowdens and is willing to pull a few shady legal threads to do so. It’s only through being familiar with the original film that a layperson could make the connection. Any older male with charisma could have fit the role, so why not Mitchum? Peck (the original Sam Bowden) appears as Lee Heller, Cady’s lawyer who, despite the criminal nature of his client, stands for justice. He only appears for one scene, and really anyone could have played this role. So once again, why not Peck? It also makes a nice nod to To Kill a Mockingbird, where Peck also played the altruistic, justice-seeking attorney. I guess if anyone is going to stack references in a classy way, it’s going to be Scorsese.
The highlight of the original film is the apocalyptic score by Bernard Hermann. In so many remakes of films with excellent music, we tend to get an underwhelming score that sheepishly hides from being too iconic, and fails to blaze its own aural trail. Here we get the same score, rearranged by composer, Elmer Bernstein. This preserves the tone of the original film (more later on how this version embraces the dated feeling of the original), pays homage to it, and gives our new composer something to do. Once again, not knowing this was a remake, a casual audience member couldn’t be blamed for believing it was all new, and a purist would very likely be pleased that such an essential element of the original film was kept intact without being entirely ripped off.
Beyond the score, Scorsese plays with the technical style in a way that is different from the bulk of his work. Watching older movies from before the era of New Hollywood (which Scorsese was a key element of) it’s easy to smell the cheese on even the less mainstream stuff. Acting was done in a broader, more theatrical way, and to be able to apply visual flare was a luxury afforded only to the directors of more mainstream fare. As such, the original film has a feel to it that is dated and soap operatic. Scorsese uses this as an opportunity to really lean into that melodramatic style, but uses it to put forth material with a more modern sensibility. The cinematography by Freddie Francis, a Hammer directing alum and frequent David Lynch cinematographer, uses a dream-like color palette which suggests the same twisted soap opera mood that both Lynch and Hammer Studios made famous, applying it as a sort of tonal lubricant. Cady, as played by a scenery-chewing De Niro, could not exist in the real world, but feels right at home in this dark after school special.
Further into the idiosyncratic style, we see Scorsese using two aggressive visual tools. First is the frequent use of negatives. At three points throughout the film – two which occur as flair to benefit the audience, one which happens in scene to represent a character’s existential moment of terror – the film shifts into a negative exposure. It’s appropriately jarring, and in the hands of a less tonally receptive filmmaker, could divorce the viewer from the film, but here it only serves to draw us in further; to create the same uneasiness which afflicts the Bowden family from the moment Cady arrives in town. On a physical level it works too. Much in the same way that Gaspar Noe will underline his movies’ score with a physically unsettling tone to cause literal nausea in the audiences, the bright and sudden flashes of Max Cady’s smiling mug in negative literally forces the viewer to close their eyes … only to reveal that his image has been burned into their retina, even if just for a second. It’s his omnipresence that makes him so scary to the Bowdens, and this technique allows him to climb out of the screen and into our lives as well.
The second visual tool aggressively employed in Cape Fear is one I struggle to label. The way that the sky is shot creates a feeling of brewing tension. Early in the film the sky is sunny, if not a bit overcast, evoking a fond summer memory. But as the narrative tension increases, the sky becomes more turbulent and downright supernatural. There are a few shots of the Bowden residence in which it is clear that the sky was a separate shot which was pasted onto the screen. It feels false, sloppy even, but completely in tune with the brewing unease. As Cady inserts himself deeper into the Bowdens’ world, the world itself becomes diseased.
Let’s talk about the script for a bit. I have no knowledge of the source novel, so I cannot comment on the ethics within, nor can I comment on what aspects of it were brought to either film. However, it’s the murky moral standards in the original film which damaged the experience for me. In the 1962 version there is a clear distinction of good and evil, and the Bowdens, at least at the outset, are framed as pure. When Cady arrives in town and begins to lightly harass them, he is most certainly in the wrong, but this gives nobody any right to abuse law enforcement in an effort to lock him back up. During the first act, Cady has no more than made his presence known to Sam Bowden and his family, but Sam has taken it upon himself to ask the local police to find something, anything, to get Cady out of town. The police are more than happy to help. This is viewed as abuse of power only by Cady himself (and his equally slimy lawyer), and even if the greater good is being served, it’s a complete failure of law.
In Scorsese’s version, penned by Wesley Strick, the villains and heroes are clearly defined, but the ehthical structure is a dark shade of grey. The movie opens with the Bowdens as a broken family. Sam (Nick Nolte) is a lawyer whose strict professional code didn’t stop him from withholding damaging character evidence back when he was Cady’s public defender, nor does it stop him from engaging in extramarital affairs. Leigh Bowden (Jessica Lange) is a chain-smoking housewife with a history of suicidal behavior. Their daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is a typical fifteen year-old, helped into insecurity by the marital tensions of her parents. In this version of the story, their family unit is already weak at the seams, and it’s much more believable that a man like Cady could exploit this weakness for his own enjoyment.
In both movies, the most egregious step into questionable legality is when Sam, distraught and desperate, hires goons to rough Cady up and scare him out of town. In both versions of the film, Cady overpowers his attackers and Sam’s plan backfires. In the original film this is framed in a way that suggests that it was a good idea that failed – that it was justified, and the only problem with it was that the goons didn’t hit hard enough. In the updated version however, this moment is enhanced by two things. First, Bowden is watching from behind a dumpster as his contracted beatdown goes sour. We watch him descend from reluctance to terror to regret. Second, the decision to hire the hitmen is immediately regarded as a bad idea. It’s not a necessary evil rooted in desperation, but a character failure; a thematic leveling of the playing field that adds nuance to the battle between Cady and Bowden.
As a result, extra measures must be taken to characterize Cady as the more evil of the two men. Scorsese’s film does this in a long list of ways. Cady’s original crime, the one that landed him in jail many years prior, is a brutal rape and murder of a sixteen year-old girl. Upon his return to the free world one of his first acts is to attack a woman who he picked up at a bar. He breaks her arm, rapes her, and bites a chunk of flesh out of her face. He then goes on to sexually assault Danielle Bowden, all the while doing only just enough to keep his behavior from being legally actionable. Make no mistake, both iterations of Cady are distinctly criminal, but De Niro’s depiction is excessively gruesome. Both he and Mitchum probably poisoned the Bowdens’ dog, but only De Niro saw fit stop by their home and drop off the deceased pup’s collar. Buuuut not happy to make things too black and white, the remake includes a scene in which Cady admits in very frank language the brutal rapes he suffered while in prison. It doesn’t defend his actions, but motivates them in a way that can only be described as disgusting … and a bit understandable.
The characters of Bowden and Cady serve to explore the degree to which one can bend their moral code to enact what they perceive to be justice, and both do so from different points on the compass. As a result, we are presented with two evils, only one of which has any chance of being saved. This exploration is completely absent from the original film, and is perhaps the most compelling element of the remake. While Cady seeks to exploit the weaknesses of the Bowden family, hoping to tear them apart and school them in the concept of loss, it’s this very trial by fire that just might save them.
I think the key to a great remake is to find a film with a good concept that may not have been executed to its fullest potential – or in the case of Cape Fear, a film that was thematically ahead of the tastes of its time – and give it a thorough retelling; a chance to be explored deeper than whatever the limitations imposed upon it allowed. Scorsese and his team managed to take a cult classic and turn it into a piece of cultural iconography, all the while expanding the legacy of the original film.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.