Cape Fear Box Set Review
Cape Fear (1962)
In the late fifties, famous actors became producers as they sought out material to base their own starring vehicles around. Burt Lancaster and Kurt Douglas were successfully experienced in this exercise, and so Gregory Peck took his turn. Peck's Melville Productions bought the rights to John D. MacDonald's novel The Executioners, and his production company produced the original Cape Fear in 1962 (with Mitchum's Talbot Productions co-producing). The film is a crisp black-and-white psycho-thriller that belonged to a genre best defined in the fifties to sixties period. Alongside other Hollywood system masterpieces as Psycho, Touch Of Evil and Night Of The Hunter (also starring Robert Mitchum), the film manages to portray the villain of the piece as the most unredeemable human being alive whilst simultaneously portraying him as the most interesting, without glorifying his psychotically criminal traits.
Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a successful and respected lawyer who lives in relative comfort in small town Savannah, Georgia with his doting wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and loving teenage daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). However, the tranquillity that Bowden's life has provided is about to be attacked, when Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a horrendous ex-con that Bowden testified against to put him in prison eight years ago, has recently been released and pays him a visit. Cady is bitter and hell-bent on wreaking revenge on Bowden, as he blames him for his lengthy prison stretch. Cady's embarks on a sort of cat-and-mouse battle of wills, which involves stalking Bowden and his family wherever they go. Legally, Sam is powerless to stop Cady's schemes, as Cady isn't breaking any laws. However, Sam manages to acquire the help of the local police chief (Martin Balsam) and a private detective (Telly Savalas with hair!), who provide some law-bending advice. In an act of desperation, Bowden pays to have several men physically beat Cady, hoping this will force him to leave town. Not only does Cady overcome the group of men, but he also files charges against Bowden, and in a twisted sense of justice, the courts protect Cady from the lawyer who once helped imprison him. Required to attend an out of town hearing on the matter, Bowden uses the opportunity to set a human trap for Cady. He arranges for his wife and daughter to spend time at a houseboat on the Cape Fear River, hoping that Cady will make a play for them, while Bowden lurks in the wings, hoping to stop this battle once and for all.
Cape Fear has dated more than other classics of its type, but this is solely due to the less explicit tone of some scenes (which have possibly been superseded by the graphic remake) and also because of the weak structuring of the 'good guys' characters. Whereas Psycho's Marion Crane was an adulterer and unsure thief, the Bowden family in Cape Fear are too perfect, too clean cut and two-dimensional in the best sixties cardboard character sense. This could have been deliberate in order to make Mitchum's Cady more interesting. Mitchum himself is having such fun as Cady you almost sense that he is not actually acting but being Cady, which is a scary prospect indeed.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns Of Navarone, Conquest of The Planet Of The Apes, Ice-Cold In Alex) and expertly written by James R. Webb, Cape Fear is a smouldering cauldron of tension, which is boiling at high temperature, and yet still strikes a cold chord of terror down the spines of the audience. The fantastic Hitchcockian derived score by Bernard Herrmann is both haunting and utterly menacing, to the point that it sits comfortably alongside his greater musical contributions such as Psycho, Vertigo and Taxi Driver.
What makes Cape Fear a classic is the fact that the film isn't afraid to take a fascist viewpoint similar to that of Dirty Harry. Prison hasn't reformed Cady it has made him worse. It has trained him to use his law education as some sort of weapon on Bowden. Rather than devote his prison sentence to starting a new, clean life and overcome guilt of the crimes he has committed, Cady is solely preoccupied with vengeance on Bowden, in a way an excuse to not take responsibility for his own actions. Cady has such a low disregard for human life that he is willing to rape members of Bowden's family (although because of censorship issues the film cleverly never mentions the word 'rape') as some sort of malicious warning to Bowden. It is therefore understandable why Bowden takes the law into his own hands to stop the relentless Cady.
Featuring some fine performances, excellent dramatic pacing and a timeless noir quality, Cape Fear is excellent food for thought, and terribly exciting.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the black and white transfer looks splendid, with bright vivid tones and a good remastered print. Obviously a few speckles occur on occasions, but Cape Fear looks fresher than it ever has before, and the transfer is arguably better than the remake's.
Presented in the original mono mix, the sound has been remastered with added bass and is generally pleasing. Hiss is rare to non-existent (good for a forty-year-old film) and dialogue is clearly audible and recorded at an acceptable volume.
Menu: A nicely illustrated menu that is unfortunately static and silent. Comprising of artwork from the film, and given a murky mist coloured overcoat.
Packaging: The usual Universal Amaray template packaging with a chapter listing included inside.
The Making Of Cape Fear - Documentary: A good twenty eight minute Laurent Bouzereau documentary that unfortunately isn't as long a documentary as the remake version, but is still informative and moulded around the same style. Featuring interesting interviews with J. Lee Thompson and Gregory Peck, but sadly lacking the involvement of Robert Mitchum who had died two years previously. The documentary focuses on bringing MacDonald's novel to the screen and the various elements involved in creating suitable tension, such as hiring Bernard Herrmann. Also, the documentary focuses on the filmmakers battle with the British censors, who wanted to impose one hundred and sixty one cuts!
Production Photographs: A five minute reel of photographs from the production and poster artwork, backed with score from the film by Bernard Herrmann.
Theatrical Trailer: A good early sixties trailer with traditional big and bold white lettering and typical style pandering to the shocker elements of the film.
Production Notes: A few pages of production notes on the making of the film, although no new insights are revealed.
Cast & Filmmakers: A few text pages of cast and crew biographies and filmographies.
A classic example of sixties noir given probably the best DVD package it is ever likely to have. Picture and sound qualities are very good, and the extras are informative if slightly sparse compared to the remake version.
Cape Fear (1991)
Remakes are a curious oddity for anyone claiming to be obsessive about film. Why remake a film? If the original is good enough to need to be brought to the attention of a new generation, why not just re-show that version as opposed to cheapening it with new actors, new scenes and no new mystique in the form of a new version? It's sort of the same argument as why artists cover other artist's songs - because of the voice delivering the song. It isn't in doubt that Sinatra sings 'My Way' better than its creator Paul Anka (Or indeed that annoying ex-Take That dancer) or that Hendrix does a damn good version of Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower'. So, if you agree with this principle, then there is no reason why directors cannot do a 'good version' of another director's film. In most places, this hasn't happened, with remakes of King Kong, Planet Of The Apes, and Get Carter all not being worthy of holding the same title as the original films. Even when directors have tried to virtually re-shoot rather than remake, such as Gus Van Sant's Psycho interpretation, the critical response has been murderous.
Some remakes however, are worthy enough to sit cosily either alongside or slightly underneath the basis for their adaptation. Cronenberg's The Fly was an honourable update of the fifties Vincent Price chiller; Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht was a stylish retread of the Murnau silent classic; Even The Magnificent Seven was an OK Hollywood-system version of the brilliant Seven Samurai.
Spielberg was originally to have directed the early nineties remake of Cape Fear. Ironically enough, Martin Scorsese was originally to have directed Schindler's List! Anyhow, as part of his new contract with Universal and Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, Scorsese felt that he owed Universal a 'mainstream' hit and became a 'director-for-hire'. Scorsese claims to love the 'studio films' of the fifties and sequels, and this was one of the reasons why he chose to remake Cape Fear in 1991.
Expertly written by Wesley Strick, and suitably moulded by Scorsese into a more personal film, the remake manages to pay homage to the original and still be enjoyable entertainment in its own right. What makes the remake of Cape Fear so interesting as a remake is the shift in the natures of its core characters. Whereas the original was clearly a straightforward black and white / good versus evil tale, the remake deliberately exists in a much greyer area, in which the totally good or totally evil characters no longer exist. The characters are the same, yet their principles are completely different. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is still a successful lawyer, but is no longer the saint with a halo hanging around his head like Gregory Peck's Bowden. The new Sam Bowden has a past of marriage infidelity, and is currently initiating a series of liaisons with a female clerk at his firm. Sam's wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is neurotic and insecure, and superficially trusts him, yet is not the doting housewife presented in the sixties version. Even their daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is experiencing the usual teen-alienation from her parents, and isn't presented as the 'run-to-daddie's-arms' type of girl. The film's villain - Max Cady (Robert De Niro) has transformed from a bitter, violent misogynist into a murderous psycho past the point of no return. The most important element that has shifted in context from the original however, is the reason why Cady was imprisoned. Rather than being an opposing witness as in the original, Bowden was actually Cady's defence attorney in a rape trial, but deliberately withheld vital evidence because Bowden wanted to lose the case which would result in the imprisonment of Cady. Cady was imprisoned for fourteen years, and spent most of his time studying law. Now released from prison, Cady has realised that Bowden denied him his basic rights to a fair defence, and has sought to inflict revenge through terrorising Bowden and his family.
The clever touch of having Cady's legal rights infringed almost restores settings to a level playing field. The film makes no bones about Cady being a despicable human being, but yet still throws much blame at Bowden, for creating his own problems and not living up to the responsibilities of his job. Painting Bowden as being unfaithful in his marriage and a lousy father is almost the icing on the cake. It's almost as if Cady is the maximum embodiment of being physically evil through his actions and Bowden is the same, but mentally instead of physically. You can almost feel Scorsese even wanting Cady to win, like he's some sort of more extreme (if it exists) Travis Bickle. Cady might be a rapist and vicious women beater, and the film doesn't excuse this or defend it, but he certainly has fewer pretensions than Bowden, who exists in a permanent cloud of deceit with a self-serving nature. The issue of Bowden's daughter Danielle messes with the good-versus-evil balance the most. Danielle is neglected constantly by Bowden, and yet when she is lured into her school drama theatre by Cady, he becomes almost a second father figure with her in a twisted Electra complex type of way. The sexually charged (and completely improvised) sequence is forever on the brink of being explosive, and this is due to the fantastic performances by De Niro and Lewis, who were both Oscar nominated.
As for De Niro, he makes Robert Mitchum's Max Cady his own to such an extent that the film could have been renamed 'Max Cady', as he has elevated his character from the good versus evil battle of the original film to foremost protagonist. De Niro is certainly very fearsome to watch as Cady, coupled with his impressive physique and hideous tattoos, and also because for the most part of Cape Fear he is relatively calm. It is also worth warning the audience how menacing De Niro sounds with a deep southern tone of voice. Nolte and Lange perform acceptable but it was never going to be their movie, and Juliette Lewis shows surprising promise as Danielle. Joe Don Baker has a very good supporting role as Private Investigator Claude Kersek, a no-nonsense and unscrupulous character. It's also nice to have Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum switch sides so to speak in the remake, with Mitchum playing a police lieutenant and Peck playing Cady's lawyer.
What about Scorsese's direction? For any other director, the remake of Cape Fear would serve as a fine career notch, but for Scorsese, he seems unusually confined to the material. He throws in much more graphic violence and uses editor Thelma Schoonmaker to edit scene transitions frantically, but there are still times when Cape Fear switches between a Scorsese film and a genre film. Maybe it's the final actual Cape Fear sequences that drag the film down to conventional thriller status. If Scorsese had had the guts to let Cady come out victorious, his film would have proved to be much more interesting. Instead, Cape Fear is a good genre film directed by a master talent. Even the delicious Psycho homage is thrown in too late to return the controls to Scorsese.
At least Cape Fear maintains the fantastic original Bernard Herrmann score. It's been re-conducted and arranged by Elmer Bernstein, but you'd be forgiven for thinking the film has simply lifted the original version's score completely. Freddie Francis also turns in a respectable job as the film's cinematographer, giving Cape Fear a sinister and suitably unrealistic dark covering.
Cape Fear has a very interesting mutated premise compared to the original, and is hard to fault throughout. However, it ultimately feels like a cop-out on Scorsese's part, as he should either have stuck to making a personal film or a genre film, and not fluctuate in between. Even so, the film is extremely enjoyable like most genre thrillers are, and it doesn't disrespect the original, which is always a good sign.
Academy Awards 1991
Academy Award Nominations 1991
Best Actor - Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actress - Juliette Lewis
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is very good and the film is complemented more thoroughly in widescreen as opposed to pan-and-scan television prints. There are few dirt elements, and colours are sometimes possessing an early nineties dated quality, but on the whole, the transfer is perfectly acceptable. However, it is probably still inferior to the excellent transfer the original Cape Fear received on its DVD.
Provided with a Dolby 5.1 mix, but lacking the DTS mix of the Region 1 version, the sound is relatively 2.0 in set-up other than some of the more action packed sequences, such as the finale and the violent Cady scenes. The sound mix is extremely atmospheric and the low thunderous rumblings that are ever present further complement the tenseness of the film.
Menu: The usual static Universal menu, with promotional artwork filling the background.
Packaging: The Cape Fear remake is spread over two discs, with the feature on one disc and the extras on the other. Contained in a single amaray with slots for two discs, complete with hinges in the centre to hold the included fold-out booklet, which includes brief production notes and chapter listings.
The Making Of Cape Fear - Documentary; An excellent Laurent Bouzereau documentary, lasting for an hour and twenty minutes and featuring extensive interviews from all of the major cast and crew participants. It's the sort of documentary that renders commentaries redundant, due to the massive amount of behind the scenes information provided for the viewer. Everything is documented, from the re-use of Herrmann's score (and how they even used portions from Torn Curtain) to how Saul Bass designed the titles. Universal has strangely omitted chapter listings for this documentary, despite its obvious need for them. Presented in fullscreen.
Deleted Scenes: A nine minute reel of deleted scenes, which are just added moments of characterisation, including another sequence of Cady phoning Danielle. The sequences are all watchable in their own right, but do not merit inclusion in the final film version. Presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen.
Behind The Scenes Of The Fourth Of July Parade: A two minute mixture of behind the scenes footage from the fourth of July sequence and clips from the final film version. If anything, this feels left over from the documentary.
On The Set Of The Houseboat: A two minute clip of filming the water scenes on the houseboat set, with some funny outtake moments. Again, you get the sense that this never made the final cut of the documentary.
Photograph Montage: A nine-minute reel of photographs backed with Herrmann's score. The reel is split up into three sections - The Physical Transformation Of Robert De Niro's Max Cady, The Cast Of Cape Fear and Martin Scorsese Directs Cape Fear.
Matte Paintings: A fifty five second reel showing two sequences that cleverly incorporated the use of matte paintings to enhance the background.
Opening Titles: A poorly titled but excellent eleven minute reel showcasing four examples of Saul Bass' legendary title credit work. Films shown are Vertigo, Psycho, Spartacus and Casino.
Theatrical Trailer: A trailer that starts off flowery and nice as if it were a family drama and then distorts into the usual nineties thriller trailer.
Production Notes: A few pages of production notes on the making of the film.
Cast & Filmmakers: A few text pages of cast and crew biographies and filmographies.
DVD-ROM Contents: A script-to-screen version is presented, along with a few related website links.
One of the better Universal release with good picture and sound qualities and some very good extras spread out over two discs.
Two excellent films ultimately even in ranking are given very good DVD treatments from Universal, usually an underwhelming DVD distributor. Priced at an RRP of £24.99, but mostly £19.99 in shops, the Cape Fear Box Set is a good value for money package and a must for any thriller or Scorsese fans.