Most of the time, the news of a remake fills me with dread. A film I loved and cherished is being remade, and not only do I fail to understand why, I generally view it as ‘Cinematic Sacrilege’. In 1991, I read that Marin Scorsese was about to release a new version of ‘Cape Fear’, starring Robert De Niro. As much as I had admired the work of both director and actor for some time, I really could’t see the point.
‘Cape Fear’ was an outstanding thriller, made in 1962 by J. Lee Thompson, with excellent music by Bernard Hermann. Filmed in stark black and white, it featured a central performance from Robert Mitchum that was one of his best ever. And he was in good company, with Gregory Peck, Poly Bergen, Telly Savalas, and Martin Balsam in the cast. The story is simple, yet chillingly effective. Rapist Max Cady (Mitchum) is released from prison, and he is bearing a grudge. That hatred is directed at the man who had him convicted, lawyer Sam Bowden. (Peck) He stalks the family, making them uneasy, and fearing for the safety of their 14 year old daughter. The events begin to spiral out of control, as Sam can get no proof that Cady is responsible for anything he appears to have done to them.
Things build to a climax when Cady follows the family to the isolated spot known as Cape Fear, where they have escaped to hide out on a boat. Sam suspects he will be there, and lies in wait, assisted by a local policeman. But not everything turns out the way he had hoped. I saw this film in my teens, and thought it was excellent. I had seen it against since, and enjoyed it just as much, even knowing the outcome.
Nonetheless, and despite my trepidation, I was tempted by the 1991 film. It starred De Niro as Max Cady, Nick Nolte as Sam, and Jessica Lange as his wife. Their daughter was played by the superb and much underrated Juliette Lewis, then there was Joe Don Baker, and the nice touch of roles for Mitchum, Peck, and Balsam too. It seemed to me that Scorsese was attempting more of a tribute than a straight remake, so I paid my money, and went into the cinema to see it.
And was I glad I did!
The film was updated perfectly. Nothing in the story was changed, though Max Cady was more like a con we might expect to see in the 90s, and very terrifying. Everyone stayed true to the spirit of the original, and I enjoyed every minute of the film. The ending was the same, the settings little changed, and the film overall was just as good as the earlier one. Scorsese had accomplished something rare indeed. Not only had he managed to deliver a remake as good as the first film, in many respects, it was actually more exciting, and more involving. It’s still worth watching both though.