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Goodfellas may have been his finest movie, but Raging Bull is still the seminal masterpiece that future film students will watch to understand Martin Scorsese. Scorsese directs as if he's boxing, with a powerful mix of physicality and strategy, and he has an uncanny knack for knowing precisely how to drain his audiences. As assault tacticians go, there's no better director in America.
Cape Fear would appear, at least superficially, to be a perfect opportunity for another Scorsese knockout. J. Lee Thompson's excellent 1962 thriller - which starred Gregory Peck as Southern lawyer Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, the sadistic ex-con who makes Bowden's life a living hell - was taut and chilling, elevated by Mitchum's sensual, vulpine performance and James Webb's brisk script. But Scorsese, who has made a career out of biting off more than he can chew, wants nothing to do with superficiality, and it almost sinks him.
Still sailing from last year's triumphant Goodfellas and working with as much confidence (and more money) than ever, Scorsese has wasted no time in re-creating the Thompson film in his own image. The rough outline of the story, based on the John D. MacDonald novel The Executioners, remains unchanged. Bowden (Nick Nolte) lives in a sleepy Southern town (here, it's New Essex, North Carolina, although many of the exteriors were shot in the Fort Lauderdale area), surrounded by a comfy life, a cushy job, and a loving family. When a man by the name of Max Cady (Robert De Niro) comes to town, all that complacency threatens to crumble. Cady, who was a client of Bowden's fifteen years before, holds his former attorney accountable for sending him to prison, and he has returned to even the score. Given the star power at his disposal, Scorsese could have filmed his Cape Fear as a celebrity-sated tribute to cheap thrills, a high-energy revenge story with lurid shock-cues in all the right places. But this fall has already seen Ricochet, Russell Mulcahy's dumbed-down and poorly scripted action thriller, and Scorsese is a man with a vision. Rather than angle for big box-office returns, he has played fast and loose with the thriller genre, appropriating some elements, jettisoning others, and adding large doses of his own obsessions with issues of remorse, revenge, faith, and fear. Welcome to Cape Fear, the Scorsese remix.
Keeping the Thompson film in his rearview mirror but looking ahead to more ambitious vistas, Scorsese has streamlined the cast of characters. Working with screenwriter Wesley Strick, he has focused on the central quartet, all of whom are substantially reconceived. Bowden, rather than assuming a position of simple moral superiority with regard to Cady's cruelty, is a confused and compromised failure. As a husband and father, he has a long history of womanizing that has caused his family severe emotional pain; as a lawyer, he has made the occasional ethical lapse, one of which contributed to Cady's original imprisonment. And the rest of the Bowden clan - Jessica Lange as Sam's wife Leigh, and Juliette Lewis as daughter Dani - are near-total overhauls of the scared housewife (Polly Bergen) and defenseless waif (Lori Martin) of the original. Lewis gives a spectacularly real performance; her Dani Bowden is gawky and awkward, precariously balanced on the leading edge of her womanhood and particularly vulnerable to Cady's charismatic advances. In Strick's screenplay, the complexity of the contemporary world infects all the characters. No one is simply good, and no one is simply bad.
One of the exhilarating effects of this equivocality is the way it alters the Max Cady character. At first Cady's arrival in New Essex is confined to simple harassment - in one wonderful scene, he positions himself in front of the Bowdens in a movie theater (Problem Child is playing) and laughs with a hearty mania. But when Cady persists - when the family dog mysteriously meets its maker and Leigh starts complaining of intruders on the property - Sam recognizes that the irksome lurking belies a deadly malevolence. During his extended prison stay, Cady has taught himself to read, and fancies himself a legal expert. But the only law he seems to care about is the code of Hammurabi, and by his calculations, the fourteen years of freedom that Bowden stole from him entitle him to major payback. Abandoning the secular sadism of Mitchum's Cady, Scorsese recasts his villain as an instrument of vengeance who finds his validation in the Scriptural passages and symbols he has tattooed all over his body. "I'll teach you about loss," he vows to Bowden, directing him toward the Book of Job and promising equivalent trials and torments. If the first Cady was a wolf in sheep's clothing, this one is an avenging angel in wolf's clothing, and De Niro, who has made a career out of playing sociopaths and psychopaths, often under Scorsese's direction, spends the better part of his deeply disturbing performance reiterating why he is the foremost practitioner of America's Ugly Id.
Scorsese's revised characters are set on collision course, and the first half of Cape Fear pays off the investment with monumental interest. The Bowdens don't have the ethnicity of the traditional Scorsese family, but they have their own dynamic - Sam and Leigh are a volatile pair, and their flammability wreaks havoc on Dani. As Cady starts to circle tighter and tighter, as his grip on Bowden's life constricts, the tension swells beautifully. The dividends for students of film are considerable - the bright-red band of Cady's hood, shot from above, rises through the frame like a thermometer's mercury ascending - and one scene in particular, which involves Cady's barroom pickup of a young female law clerk (Illeana Douglas), is among the strongest and most harrowing work Scorsese has ever done.
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