Two movies, made twenty-nine years apart: same title, same basic plot, yet morally a universe apart. The original, starring Gregory Peck (one of the most likable actors in the history of Hollywood) as lawyer Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum (one of the most menacing) as maniacal ex-con Max Cady, whose lives become intertwined when Bowden witnesses Cady assaulting a woman, testifies against him in court, and lands Cady with eight years of apparently very hard time. Cady has come from prison with one thing on his mind: revenge against Bowden and all that he holds dear. The original film, from 1962, is a classic noir, with beautiful use of shadow and light to illustrate the moods and advance the themes. The themes are also fairly black and white. Mitchum’s Cady is a tightly wound spring of a man. On the outside he is all smiling and laughing good old boy, but just below the surface seethes a dangerous, misogynist, predator. He has a history of violence and abuse to women, and shows no remorse or understanding of his actions. Mitchum was absolutely made to play this role, and all his greatest assets: the heavily lidded eyes, the deep, cultivated southern accent, and his entirely imposing physical presence work beautifully to assure us he is entirely below reproach. Peck’s Bowden is drawn just as broadly as Cady’s moral opposite: he is a good husband and father, an honest lawyer and a decent man. Cady’s animus towards Bowden seems random and inexplicable. Why not seek revenge on the judge or prosecutor? So the lines are clearly drawn for a clear-cut struggle between good and evil. And a gripping and tightly directed struggle it is, as director J. Lee Thompson skillfully builds Cady’s menace in the Bowden family’s life with escalating appearances in the personal affairs of Sam’s wife and pre-pubescent daughter. Events go from the murder of the family dog to an eventual appearance at Sam’s daughter’s school. At this point Sam Bowden has been pushed far enough. Fear and his protective instincts slowly challenge his core beliefs as he starts to try anything to stop Cady’s murderous revenge. Along with a friendly cop and a private detective he devises a plan to lure Cady to an isolated vacation spot called Cape Fear where he can be gotten rid of away from the eyes of society. While Bowden is clearly the morally superior man, we are forced to confront uncomfortable issues revolving around just what is justifiable in the name of self-protection.
Enter Martin Scorsese in 1991 with the same story drawn with a very different set of inks. In Scorsese’s film our protagonist, this time played with sleazy complexity by Nick Nolte, is not a clearly good guy. In fact he is a pretty lousy guy. He is a serial philanderer, his marriage on the rocks, and his fifteen-year-old daughter experimenting with sexuality and rebellion. In this version, Bowden actually was Cady’s public defender and intentionally hid evidence that could have exonerated Cady. It’s not that Cady didn’t deserve the jail time though; Robert DeNiro plays a Max Cady so beyond the pale of normal decency that he almost seems like a different species. In one of his most startling roles (and THAT is saying something) DeNiro channels every frightening, Pentacostal, woman-hating, backwoods, boogeyman stereotype you can imagine, and hones them into an almost unearthly, tattooed, bible-verse spewing, madman whose anger and desire for vengeance is demonic. The differences between this and the original film could not be any more starkly drawn. In Scorsese’s universe of the 1990’s, moral certainty no longer exists. Cady is a terrifying murderer, but his anger and contempt for Bowden seem far more understandable considering the lawyer’s own moral failings.
It is this very ambiguity that becomes the key to the latter-day Cape Fear’s greatness. The movie turns on the audience’s discomfort with Bowden’s own character flaws as they relate to Cady’s hostility. There is no question that Cady is evil, but there is a question about Bowden. Nolte’s performance is delicately nuanced as he goes from being annoyed by Cady’s appearance to furious and outraged, and finally landing at a near animal state as he locks into mortal combat with a human monstrosity.
Both movies ultimately belong to the antagonists. Mitchum beguiles us with his creepy southern charm, while DeNiro goes as far as he ever has in a role, offering up two of his most memorable scenes. In the most uncomfortable 10 minutes ever committed to film, he slowly and expertly takes the 15-year-old Juliette Lewis’ character into his confidence, exploiting her adolescent feelings of inadequacy and confusion to sexually advance on her. If you can watch this scene without discomfort, please see your therapist. In the final half hour of the movie, DeNiro’s performance defies expectation or category. The movie almost moves to the level of magic realism as Max Cady’s capacity for violence and pseudo-biblical narration take on nearly supernatural levels. I’ve seen this movie a number of times and I still scratch my head at that last scene. It is almost incomprehensible, except that it all feels somehow possible. Unfortunately, the real world has prepared me for this level of madness.
It is impossible to say which of these two thought-provoking thrillers is the more satisfying. The original offers the clarity of a black and white world. It has a beginning, middle and end leaving us with little uncertainty. Scorsese’s version is much more reflective of the modern world; it is a bleak look into moral uncertainty and unhappy endings. One film was much easier to watch, and provided a welcome sense of emotional closure as the credits rolled, while the other left me with deep, unshakable questions about the human heart. Now that is a good afternoon of film!
- Paul Epstein