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MOVIE REVIEW : Scorsese’s Way With a BadFella

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Cape Fear” is a film as sadistic as its star player. What venomous psychopath Max Cady (played as only Robert De Niro can) does to his victims is exactly paralleled by what director Martin Scorsese does to his audience. We squirm, we squeal, we squeak for mercy as Scorsese and company wring us out like an old washcloth. Is it done with the expertness of a contract killing? Absolutely. Is it something we should applaud? That remains to be seen.

There is little doubt that Martin Scorsese, whose “GoodFellas” took the lion’s share of last year’s critical awards, is as accomplished a director as is currently working. What Scorsese has never had, however, is a major commercial blockbuster of the kind that makes the Academy Awards folks do more than just nominate, and it’s fair to guess that one of the attractions “Cape Fear” had for him was the chance to do what Jonathan Demme did with “Silence of the Lambs”: scare the pants off mainstream America and make a potful of money in the process.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Nov. 14, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 14, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 5 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
‘Cape’ role-- Due to an editing error, Nick Nolte was incorrectly identified in Wednesday’s Calendar as having played Sam Bowden in the 1962 version of “Cape Fear.” That role was played by Gregory Peck. Nolte plays Bowden in the current version directed by Martin Scorsese.

Unlike Demme’s film, “Cape Fear” (Avco Westwood and Cineplex Odeon Universal City) is not based directly on a novel, but rather on a 1962 film of the same name that starred Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, a vengeful ex-con who turns up in a small Southern town intent on terrorizing both the person and the family of a lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), he has a long-standing grudge against.

The original is clearly something Scorsese is fond of, for he and screenwriter Wesley Strick have not only kept the basic plot and key character names intact, but even devised new, parallel versions of several old scenes. More than that, Scorsese has cast both Mitchum and Gregory Peck in cameos here (in a nice twist, Mitchum now plays a good guy and Peck a questionable one) and wisely recycled Bernard Herrmann’s icily brilliant original score.

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But what made people squirm 30 years ago is tameness itself compared to what makes audiences go through the roof today. And the best way to examine what this “Cape Fear” is up to is to understand where and how drastically Scorsese felt it necessary to up the emotional and dramatic ante and to see what came of that gamble.

For one thing, though Mitchum’s performance was one of the most genuinely chilling of his career, no one animates sociopaths quite like De Niro, the man who made “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle a household word, and Scorsese has seen to it that he has at the very least a visual leg up on the original. “Cape Fear” opens with a shot of De Niro’s Cady working out in his cell on his last day in prison, and though photographs of luminaries like Stalin and Robert E. Lee cover the wall, easily the most decorated surface on screen is Cady’s extravagantly tattooed body.

A huge cross with the words “Truth” and “Justice” hanging from it dominates Cady’s muscular back, and the intimidating legends “The Time Is At Hand” and “Vengeance Is Mine” decorate his forearms. It is as clear as his terrifying scowl that this is a man with a mission, a monster straight from the id. As Cady walks out of prison and, in a bit of cinematic cleverness, right into the camera, we know he is going to be in someone’s face sooner rather than later.

That someone turns out to be successful lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), a pillar of the small Southern town of New Essex, where he lives with wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and 15-year-old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). After shadowing the Bowdens on an evening’s jaunt for a movie and ice cream, Cady reveals himself to Sam, who at first does not remember him. Then it all comes back. Cady is an ex-client whose case Sam lost. He did 14 years hard time for rape and aggravated assault and he is not a happy man. Sam murmurs something about understanding what he’s been through, and Cady snaps back, “I’ll make you think about loss.”

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Though it would be crystal clear to any 2-year-old, should one chance to be in the theater, what an out-and-out horror Cady is, Sam and his family, in typical suspense film fashion, don’t know at first how seriously to take him. And, once Sam does decide to act, he finds that all those years inside have toughened Cady’s mind as well as his body. The man turns out to be clever as a cobra, an insidious Iago capable of playing a thousand roles as he toys not only with the Bowdens but also with the very concept of law and civilization.

In addition to making Max Cady stronger, turning him into a kind of all-knowing, all-powerful superman of immorality (it’s not for nothing that he reads Nietzsche), Scorsese and Strick have also made Sam Bowden into a weaker, more impotent antagonist than he was in the original. Not only is the ex-con’s grudge given a factual legitimacy it never had before (what would a Scorsese film be without a little guilt?), but Sam Bowden’s previously sacrosanct home life is also given a whole series of fissures that Cady, like an avenging Count of Monte Cristo, exploits with the bravura skill of a sadistic virtuoso.

One could argue that these shadings in Cady’s victims make them more realistic, that for instance showing 15-year-old daughter Danielle as sexually uncertain and vulnerable is very true to life, but they also put these poor people even more at the mercy of Cady’s maniacal manipulations. And as he goes to work terrifying the Bowdens, slowly, methodically, with unerring instincts, Scorsese’s ability to make us squirm like we’ve never squirmed before raises serious questions that the work of a less skilled director would not.

Are we, perhaps, too quick to heap praise on films just because they are expertly done, shrugging off the troubling nature of the content? Is an audience’s increasing avid addiction to increasingly twisted thrills any justification for cheering on the people who provide them? Is it healthy for people both individually and on a societal level to applaud the placement of women in situations of grotesque jeopardy? Have our lives truly become so hollow that this kind of unapologetic bludgeoning of our sensibilities passes for jolly weekend entertainment? True, the differences between this “Cape Fear” and its predecessor can be seen as merely differences of degree, but perhaps the time has come to stop splitting hairs and say simply but firmly that enough is enough.

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‘Cape Fear’

Robert De Niro: Max Cady

Nick Nolte: Sam Bowden

Jessica Lange: Leigh Bowden

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Juliette Lewis: Danielle Bowden

Joe Don Baker: Claude Kersek

Robert Mitchum: Lieutenant Elgart

Gregory Peck: Lee Heller

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An Amblin Entertainment in association with Cappa Films and Tribeca Productions presentation, released by Universal. Director Martin Scorsese. Producer Barbara De Fina. Executive producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Screenplay by Wesley Strick, based on a screenplay by James R. Webb and “The Executioners,” a novel by John D. Mac Donald. Cinematographer Freddie Francis. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Costumes Rita Ryack. Music Bernard Herrmann, adapted and arranged by Elmer Bernstein. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack G. Taylor Jr. Set decorator Alan Hicks. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong violence and language).


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