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Cape Fear (1962)

Universal Home Video

Starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum

Written by James R. Webb,
from the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald

Directed by J. Lee Thompson

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Cape Fear: Collector's Edition (1991)

Universal Home Video

Starring Nick Nolte, Robert DeNiro, Juliette Lewis,
and Jessica Lange

Written by Wesley Strick,
from the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald
and a previous screenplay by James R. Webb

Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

The Story

Deep in the sweaty, luscious, lascivious South, lawyer Sam Bowden finds his relatively tranquil life turbulently disrupted when his past comes back to haunt him. You see, years earlier Bowden played a hand in the incarceration of one Max Cady, a brutal lothario who believes quality time with a woman involves more than just a few small bruises.

Brutal lotharios, however, don't stay in prison forever. Upon his release, Cady sets out to menace, and eventually revenge himself upon, the man he blames for his hard time. Cady deliberately and conspicuously makes guest appearances at Bowden family outings, and when Bowden uses his legal connections to pressure his stalker out of town, Cady threatens his own legal action. As Sam's family become increasingly terrified at this malevolent presence in their lives, the patriarch is caught in a legal straightjacket — nothing can be done to stop Cady's careful threat until he acts, and by then it may be too late.

With this narrative, Cape Fear, based on John D. MacDonald's pulp thriller The Executioners, is simply a lewd and sensational thriller no different in concept from the thousands of half-assed B-movies shown after 10 p.m. on cable. So how, when most movies are never made well once, did this one movie get made twice, 30 years apart, and turn out pretty good — or at least pretty interesting — both times?


It's in the casting. Not to take anything away from director J. Lee Thompson's tight and seamy vision, but the original film version of MacDonald's novel is a War of the Titans between rock-like good man Gregory Peck (as Bowden) and the deadly droop-eyed charm of Robert Mitchum (Cady).

Peck's Sam Bowden is a characterization unlike any today (as the 1991 remake makes vividly clear). He is a distinguished gentleman of the law. He is a respected professional with a sterling reputation, a big house, a loyal and demure wife, and a precocious but loving daughter on the edge of her teens. Peck's Bowden is a man of honor, a man who not only practices the law in his work, but also in his life — in fact, it was as a witness that he put Cady behind bars for assault, and for which he has earned Cady's enmity. The overriding theme of this 1962 adaptation is Bowden's paralysis when caught between the law he exhorts and its failure to protect his family. He is driven, then, to subvert the very code by which he swears, as it takes an animal to fight an animal. He is an archetypal hero, a man of principle whose duty calls him to act in extreme circumstances, and Peck tackles the role with a will of granite, resisting the erosion of moral ambiguity.

As even producer Peck admits, though, Cady is the true star of the film, and Mitchum has created a worthy ancestor of the frightening predator he so memorably played in the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum's Cady is quiet and patient, allowing the boiling forces in his heart and mind to simmer feverishly behind a placid, genial facade. It's incredible to notice that not until the film's final act does Cady so much as grimace, and yet his presence throughout the film is nearly terrifying, even when armed with merely a bemused smirk. Even though his role is less flashy, Peck is greatly responsible for Mitchum's effect. It's upright Bowden's unraveling reactions to Cady's presence, after all, that, for the most part, proscribes how we feel about the villain, and Peck is stoic and surely empathetic in his plight.

Thompson's direction is mean and lean, and suggests with eerie clarity what production codes of the day prevented him from showing. As in any movie heading into middle age, there is also a share of dated silliness, including a couple of truly lousy fist fights, some questionable legal discussions, and antiquated dialogue, such as Peck's offhand joke, "It's a mistake to teach women to tell time — they always use it against you," or the seldom-heard-these-days way Sam's wife (Polly Bergen) explains that their daughter can withstand impending trauma: "She's of pioneer stock!"

The cast also includes supporting appearances by Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas.

Technically, the 1962 Cape Fear is an excellent accomplishment, full of vivid chiaroscuro lighting, superbly planned scenarios of sublimated tensions (including the super-taboo threat of sexual assault on a child), and a few eye-catching visual tricks. Samuel Leavitt's cinematography is gorgeous, and looks stunning in this anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that must rank amongst the very best black-and-white DVDs in circulation. Bernard Herrmann's damning theme is terrifically threatening, even if only in its original 2.0 mono incarnation. Included on this disc is a half-hour retrospective featurette including funny and diverting interviews with Peck and director Thompson. Also on board are DVD-ROM features and a photo montage and trailer.


Oh, what a difference 30 years makes. To be fair to this fun, yet slipshod, remake, it feels as if director Martin Scorsese was more determined to try out a new arsenal of camera tricks than deliver a credible thriller, as Cape Fear v.2 often veers off the track of narrative credibility into an alternate universe of absolute ludicrosity.

Nick Nolte stars as lawyer Bowden, but hardly exemplifies a paragon of the bar. In the age of the anti-hero, Nolte's Bowden is an iffy, defeated sad-sack. His lawyering protects corporate interests, his marriage is troubled, his wife (Jessica Lange) bitter and shrill, and his teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis) is enduring a frustrating adolescence. It was as a public defender 14 years prior that Bowden withheld evidence, sending his client Cady to jail for rape. This gives Cady (Robert DeNiro) a valid gripe, if only legally, and makes Bowden a rather less compelling protagonist. But it is not only the hero who is weakened in this updated script. Cady, too, is compromised. DeNiro plays him like a cartoon, snarling with white-trash venom, and while occasionally funny is never an impressive antagonist. One of the clues that Scorsese was approaching this film with an attention to (splendid) visual detail only, DeNiro is covered in vengeful tattoos and usually appears in large mirrored sunglasses, building an image of a menacing villain rather than the inner-character of one. In another new, albeit trite, addition, Cady spouts Biblical verse with a preacher's rage — and at one point even speaks in tongues — the very cliché of the Pentecostal psychopath omnipresent in Hollywood's barren imagination.

The one fresh plot turn that brings Scorsese's narrative to life is the realization of Bowden's daughter, Dani, who, like any real teenager, is obstinate, entertaining puberty, and aching for attention. As Cady preys on those close to Bowden (including Illeana Douglas as an almost-mistress of Bowden's, casting him further into the shadows), Dani reacts with a mixture of fear and fascinated rebellion, culminating in the film's best scene as she and Cady come face to face for the first time. Lewis, who garnered an Oscar nomination for her role, explodes onto the screen as a vibrant, mischievous, complex young girl, and started with Cape Fear a hot streak that pegged her as the screen's most exciting young actress before her erratic off-screen behavior muted her promise.

The other star, of course, is Scorsese, who was, at the time, still considered one of America's most exciting filmmakers. Although his take on Cape Fear lacks the lean tension of Thompson's 1962 visualization, Scorsese packs his film with astonishing visual punch, at times echoing the hyperbolic but silly approach of Brian DePalma rather than his own pet fixations. Cinematographer Freddie Francis's close-ups are extreme and jolting — at times his camera whips around the action with great urgency, and at other times he frames shots beautiful in their overblown concept, like Cady malevolently sitting on Bowden's property fence, illuminated by the Fourth of July fireworks bursting behind him. As exciting as some of these comic-book-like frames may be, they cannot make up for the startling abundance of nonsense that consumes the film's final half-hour. Not only is Bowden a bad lawyer (unaware, it seems, of several obvious legal concepts), but he is also incredibly stupid, making the dull climactic act almost insufferable in its lack of motivation and forced conflicts.

Also with Joe Don Baker and cameo appearances by 1962 version stars Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, as well as Bernard Herrmann's original and irreplaceable score from the first film as retooled by Elmer Bernstein.

Universal's Collector's Edition is a two-disc set, in which the first disc features an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and great Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes. The second disc is packed with extra features, including an 80-minute retrospective documentary featuring interviews with Scorsese (who admits he wasn't originally interested in the project, but agreed to direct as payback to Universal for sticking with him through The Last Temptation of Christ), screenwriter Wesley Strick, an unusually talkative DeNiro, and more cast and crew members. Also included are a 10-minute reel of marginally intriguing deleted scenes (the best involve Lewis), a quick and pointless two-minute glimpse behind the scenes of the Fourth of July parade scene, a glimpse at the climactic houseboat set, three photo montages, a look at the matte effects used to create the film's visual style, an excellent 11-minute montage of the marvelous opening credit sequences of Saul Bass, including his work on Vertigo, Psycho, Spartacus, and his final work on Scorsese's 1996 Casino, DVD-ROM features, and trailer.

— Gregory P. Dorr

Cape Fear (1962)

Cape Fear: Collector's Edition (1991)

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