A Month Of Marty: Tripwire Reviews Cape Fear

A Month Of Marty: Tripwire Reviews Cape Fear

Cape Of No Hope

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1991’s conventional Cape Fear reviewed by Joel Meadows…

Cape Fear
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Juliette Lewis, Jessica Lange

Just a year after the seminal and universally revered Goodfellas, a re-energised Scorsese felt duty bound to go off piste once again, and so he opted to helm the decidedly pulpy Cape Fear. Based on the John D Macdonald novel The Executioners, Cape Fear had already been adapted for the big screen back in 1962 with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in the Nolte and De Niro roles respectively.

Cape Fear is a straightforward, one-dimensional revenge drama: De Niro plays Max Cady, a soft spoken Southern psychopath released from prison after 14 years.  Convinced that his trial lawyer Sam Bowden (Nolte) didn’t do enough in his defence, he immediately seeks payback, and so the cat and mouse game between them unfolds, with Cady terrorising Bowden’s family: his wife Leigh (Lange) and his impressionable, naive daughter (Lewis).

Subtlety and nuance are thrown out of the window here, with De Niro turning in his most theatrical performance ever as pantomime villain Cady. The power of De Niro in his best roles is his restrained understatement, which draws the audience in, but his portrayal of Cady is so melodramatic and hammy that it all too quickly descends into caricature. Nolte, cast against type, acquits himself very well as the increasingly desperate lawyer – ironically it is his turn that echoes Peck’s work in the original noirish version – but it’s all in vain opposite De Niro’s big acting . Originally Steven Spielberg had shown interest in Strick’s script but he felt it was far too violent and chose to make Schindler’s List instead. Scorsese’s stylistic hallmarks are all present but are deployed in such a generic fashion that they merely add to the hysteria of the proceedings, especially in the latter stages, when it all devolves into a horrorshow. Scorsese admitted at the time that he admired the old Hollywood studio system and wondered if he could make a classic genre movie that recalled that era. He saw the 1962 version as a definitive example – an unpretentious yet atmospheric B movie that he wavered over for some time, but eventually gave it the green light. Originally Harrison Ford was lined up to play Bowden rather than Nolte and he wanted Bill Murray rather than De Niro to play Cady. Ironically Murray would have been the more interesting choice for the latter role.

The original Cape Fear was a minor classic with some subtext that was certainly of its time, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck both turning in excellent performances. However Marty’s remake comes across almost like a cynical, regressive satire of such a movie, with everything turned up to eleven, especially De Niro’s sideshow caricature. What was a moody melodrama replete with implicit danger became an exploitation film three decades later – thankfully this was one entry in the canon that seemed to be about getting the idea out of the director’s system.

The ride isn’t totally without its charms as cinematographer Freddie Francis does add Hitchcockian elements, while Elmer Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann’s brilliantly dramatic score with aplomb, making it a suitably menacing counterpoint to the action. Nolte is solid as the lawyer and Lange brings considerable vulnerability to her part. However after the authoritative brilliance of Goodfellas, this was a markedly retrograde, if rather dubious step. Cape Fear, far more than its 1962 iteration, is a throwaway bundle of compulsively sleazy hokum and of course lacks the sophistication, depth and elegance of Scorsese’s more accomplished, cutting edge works. Like 1986’s The Color Of Money, Scorsese feels like a director going through the motions here.

Here’s the film’s trailer

Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well


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Cape Fear by Martin Scorsese
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