Cape Fear (1962)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It's customary to bash remakes and hail the originals, especially in light of the creative stagnation that rules modern Hollywood, but Cape Fear is a case of the original being the inferior version. The 1962 film is far more simplistic, the family under threat is bland and Samuel Bowden is cleaner than clean. In Scorsese's film, Sam was Cady's lawyer and suppressed evidence, making the moral conundrum murkier, but in Thompson's film, Sam was a witness that helped get Cady convicted; his conscience is clean. Therefore the original is just a simplistic tale of good and evil. There's very little grey here.

What dates the film the most is the family. They're almost like the Brady Bunch. They probably never have a single argument and they most likely spend their days baking cookies and going bowling. But while part of the fun is watching what sort of effect Cady's presence has on them, there are no internal frictions. They always remain true to one another. Compare this to the Scorsese film where Cady's presence brings out the inner doubt and resentment that exists amongst all families and you have a less interesting proposition.

The child actress in the film, too, is rather lacklustre. She's certainly a lot more one-dimensional than Juliette Lewis' character, who's seduced by Cady. Plus the kid in this film looks weirdly like a miniature woman rather than a girl. She's a got a woman's haircut, she talks like a woman and she's got a face that looks older than her years. She looks like her mother's mini-me.

Then there's Gregory Peck. Now I like Peck; he's a solid actor and he has an easy presence. Plus he always seems like a nice guy. But one thing that he isn't is exciting. The film always drags when he's on screen – unlike the remake where Nolte is as interesting as Cady. And he's so unflappable that you never once question his decisions, his judgement or whether he's going to survive this. He's too comforting. You always know that everything is going to be okay.

However, there is one important regard in which the original film exceeds the remake: Max Cady. Robert Mitchum's Max is more frightening and more convincing than De Niro's. I always feel that De Niro's Cady is like a hick Terminator. He's unstoppable and can survive being beaten about the head with lead pipes. Plus he can tie himself to the bottom of a car and suffer no ill effects. In essence, he's a cartoon villain – no wonder The Simpsons went to town on the character. Mitchum's Cady, on the other hand, is more like a cruel drunk. He doesn't quote the Bible like DeNiro's Cady and he doesn't have intellectual aspirations; he just quietly broods and bides his time. Plus he's more intimidating physically. Sure DeNiro built himself up and was covered in tattoos, but Mitchum has a more animalistic presence. He just locks onto his prey, puffs his ludicrously large chest and does what he has to do. He's a character you can believe in. It doesn't feel like he exists in some distant movie land.

It's hard to say what Mitchum's best scene is, but if I had to choose, I'd go with the story he tells about his wife. It's more chilling than the explicit violence in Scorsese's film. He kidnaps his ex-wife, gets her to phone her husband and pretend that she's on a second honeymoon with Cady, 'occupies her time' for three days, makes her write dirty letters that he'll mail to the husband if she tells anyone what happened, then pumps her full of whiskey, strips her of her clothes and then gives her a 'fair chance to work her way home'. It's ruthless as hell. And then there's the scene where Mitchum leers at Sam's daughter. Despite the scene in the remake where DeNiro kisses Juliette Lewis and the ones later on with Jessica Lange, you always get the feeling that it's a means to an end; De Niro's Cady seems to too psychotic to get any enjoyment out of sex. Mitchum, on the other hand, seems like he'd do it and enjoy it tremendously. I also love the scene where he breaks an egg over the chest of Peck's wife. He can snap her at any time.

The film also makes some interesting points about the law. It's not there to protect you against what someone might do. It's only there to punish someone once they've committed a crime. Therefore, if someone has no regard for the law and the consequences, like Max Cady, they can do whatever they want – the end is an old-fashioned battle for survival. However, Sam does try and bring some trumped up charges against Cady, but because Cady is reasonably intelligent, he's able to use the law to protect himself – he's always careful not do anything illegal; or if he does he makes it impossible to prove. So even though this Max Cady has even less of a reason to be angry at Sam than the one in the remake, in a strange way I can't help but root for him. Peck's Sam is a little bit too smug and bit too comfortable, and the legal environment in which he works seems like a country club – the law seems to be used as a tool against the uneducated. Consequently, because Max knows how to get around the trumped up charges and because he seems somehow more human – anger is more of a human emotion than mere contentment – I always end up wanting him to triumph. That's something that doesn't happen in the remake. In the remake I'm always on the side of the family. So although the original is an enjoyable film with a lot going for it, I still prefer Scorsese's version.

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  1. I totally agree with you. The one think that troubled me about the remake was the fact that Robert Deniro's Catey was like a machine focused totally on Sam. It was clear that Jessica Lange's character was turned on by Max's ability to outwit her seemingly unbeatable husband, who palyed with her heart in the past. Yet, the Deniro's Catey didn't see that. He simply wanted to abuse Sam. This make Jessica's character look desparate and weak. Martin should have played that up much more. Even her speech in the boat didn't really capture that feeling.