Cape Fear (1991) (DVD)

The best of one and the best of the other would make close to the perfect disc.

As the old Hollywood studio system began to take on water in the 1950s, actors increasingly turned to producing their own pictures and simply arranging distribution deals with the major studios. Burt Lancaster was one of the first to do so, releasing his efforts through United Artists. By the start of the ’60s, the practice was fairly common. Gregory Peck was one who had embraced this new approach with his company called Melville Productions (presumably an allusion to his role in the 1956 film of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”). Peck was interested in doing some sort of thriller and finally found what he was looking for in John D. MacDonald’s “The Executioners.” James Webb developed a script based on MacDonald’s novel, and the title was supplied by Peck himself when, after scouring the map of the U.S. eastern seaboard for an apt-sounding location, he came across the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. Peck had already decided that he would play the film’s protagonist — small town lawyer Sam Bowden — and Robert Mitchum was soon brought on board to play the heavy. Mitchum’s own production company — Talbot Productions — would become a co-producer of Cape Fear (1962) along with Peck’s Melville Productions. The resulting film was widely acclaimed as a classic tale of shock and suspense, with Mitchum particularly being singled out for his work as Max Cady — an ex-con single-mindedly focused on revenge.

Almost 30 years later, Robert De Niro’s strong interest in the Max Cady character finally persuaded his frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese to take on the direction of a remake. Initially, the updated script by Wesley Strick had been crafted with Steven Spielberg in mind, for he had expressed some interest in the project. Once Spielberg dropped out, Scorsese was approached, but he was reluctant, for he could see little room to improve on the original with the script as then conceived. Once he was assured that he could make script changes, however, he accepted the job, believing that the story could be addressed in a somewhat different fashion while still maintaining the suspense elements that had been the original story’s backbone. In the event, the 1991 version bears quite a close resemblance to the basics of the original version. The main difference is the exploration of the Bowden family, revealed to have deep divisions that would be stressed greatly by Max Cady’s actions. Cape Fear (1991) proved to be quite a successful film, as remakes go. De Niro’s work was seen by many critics as among his best portrayals and it brought him Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations as Best Actor.

Universal has now brought both versions of Cape Fear to DVD in separate special editions worthy of the films’ reputations.

Sam Bowden is a successful lawyer who lives contentedly in a small town with his wife and teenage daughter. Then, Max Cady, an ex-con that Bowden had helped put in prison, receives his release and comes to the town. He proceeds to play a cat and mouse game of stalking Bowden and his family. Sam is legally powerless to do anything to stop Cady, despite the help of the local police chief and a private detective. Eventually, he pays to have several men beat Cady up in an attempt to make Cady leave town. This backfires and Sam finds himself possibly facing disbarment. Required to attend a hearing on the matter out of town, Sam uses the opportunity to set a 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 try for them. Meanwhile, Sam secrets himself in the swamp near the houseboat in hopes of catching Cady in the act and then dealing with him once and for all.

In the 1991 version, the final confrontation at the houseboat comes about as a result of the Bowden family trying to flee their small town after Cady has killed a private detective they had hired to guard their home. Cady manages to strap himself under their truck and thus follow the Bowdens to the houseboat where he attacks the family after first cutting the boat loose from its mooring.

The success of the 1962 version is entirely due to three things — an extraordinary performance by Robert Mitchum, the direction of J. Lee Thompson, and James Webb’s script that builds the tension gradually but continuously and realistically to a final climactic confrontation. It is worth noting that the word “rape” is never used in the film, but that’s what it’s all about. Cady’s intended revenge on Bowden is to rape both Sam’s wife and their child and no one watching the film would have any doubt about that. The omission of the word is, of course, entirely due to censorship issues of the times, so that the filmmakers’ intent had to be conveyed by the actors and the set-up of the film’s various sequences. That’s where Mitchum and Thompson came in.

Robert Mitchum was not far removed from his considerable success in 1960’s Home from the Hill and The Sundowners when he got the offer of the Max Cady character. Mitchum had always had a commanding presence on the screen, needing minimal dialogue to create menace when needed. He could be frighteningly enigmatic too, simply by looking slightly sideways out of his hooded eyes while maintaining just the trace of a smile on his lips. Both of these traits are much in evidence in Cape Fear, particularly during the first half of the film when Cady is toying with Bowden and his family — suggesting much but never actually doing anything. To that point, the building tension is all in Bowden’s mind as he imagines what Cady intends to do. Once the scene shifts to the Cape Fear River and we see Cady actually stalking the family, imagination becomes reality and Cady’s ruthlessness is clear. His murder of a deputy assigned to help Sam is done without qualm and once he realizes that Sam is waiting for him in hiding, he stalks him unrelentingly. Mitchum is never less than completely believable throughout.

Director J. Lee Thompson came to Cape Fear by virtue of his work on The Guns Of Navarone. Gregory Peck had found that working with Thompson on that film was quite a pleasant experience, feeling that Thompson had an eye for action material as well as being able to deal well with actors. Accordingly, he offered the Cape Fear job to Thompson, after Thompson had had an opportunity to read the book on which it was based and had indicated an interest in being involved. Thompson had worked previously with Hitchcock and saw the new film as material that was quite Hitchcockian in tone, so he gave conscious consideration to how Hitchcock might have approached the various scenes to build suspense. Thus, it is not surprising that the completed film has a definite Hitchcock feel to it (aided too by a score by Bernard Herrmann, which also evokes thoughts of the Master’s Vertigo). Thompson creates suspense and fear by focusing on the actors’ physical and facial reactions to situations, by using light and shadow effectively, and by using the technique of first appearing to defuse a tense situation by providing an innocent explanation, only to suddenly turn up the screws by suddenly returning to the originally expected explanation. Thus, when Bowden’s daughter believes she is being chased through her school by Cady, she manages to escape through a basement window just as we find out that her pursuer was only the school janitor. We sigh with relief only to be jolted when the escaping daughter runs from the school grounds directly into the arms of Cady, who has been waiting outside all along.

Gregory Peck is the star of the film, but his role as Sam Bowden is really a thankless one. Sam seems to be the perfect lawyer and apparently has the perfect family, so there’s no opportunity for dramatic tension in those areas. All Peck can do is try to not let his part be overshadowed by the Cady character. He tries valiantly, but it’s Mitchum you remember when the film is over.

When it came to doing the remake, trying to seek a better balance between the two principal characters was a key issue. The result was a Sam Bowden as portrayed by Nick Nolte, who turns out to be less than a paragon of a lawyer and also part of a family that is on the verge of splitting apart. Nolte’s Bowden likes playing around with the office staff and has already had one affair in the past. His relationship with his wife Leigh (played by Jessica Lange) is tenuous, despite lengthy counseling. The two are constantly baiting each other and Bowden’s relationship with his daughter Danielle (played by Juliette Lewis) is deteriorating as a consequence. Thus, Danielle becomes almost a willing target for Cady as she rebels against her father’s attempts to protect her. Scorsese’s handling of this whole relationship is assured and the three actors are quite believable, making this aspect of the remake a substantial improvement over the original.

Robert De Niro’s Max Cady is a pretty frightening character, and there’s a bit of both Travis Bickle (from Taxi Driver) and Jake La Motta (from Raging Bull) in Cady. The gradual build-up of the tension during the first half of the film is really effective as Cady toys with each of the Bowden family members. The only troubling sequence is Cady’s attack on Sam Bowden’s squash partner whom Cady picks up in a bar. The brutality of the attack — he actually takes a bite out of the woman’s cheek — makes us wonder if we’re not going to be in for another over-the-top violent portrayal from De Niro. Unfortunately, that proves to be the case, for as the film’s climax at the boathouse plays out, Cady becomes a crazed maniac after he is burned by the ignited lighter fluid squirted over his face by Danielle — almost like a bizarre creature from the black lagoon. The set-up of this sequence is also one of the weakest aspects of the script. Does anyone really believe that Cady can strap himself to the driveshaft of the Bowdens’ vehicle and hang on for the whole time it takes them to drive to the Cape Fear River? It’s not realistic and it makes the climax seem artificially contrived. Then to have Cady go berserk is just too much.

It’s nice to see the remake acknowledge the original by including cameos from several of the actors in it. Gregory Peck has a brief appearance as a lawyer acting for Cady after he’s been beaten up, and the presiding judge at that hearing is Martin Balsam, who was the police chief in the original. Robert Mitchum has a small part as the police chief in the remake.

Universal’s work on the DVDs for each film is highly commendable. The 1962 original is packaged as a single-disc special edition, while the 1991 remake is given a full-blown two-disc collector’s edition. Both versions are presented in anamorphic widescreen utilizing the original aspect ratios — 1.85:1 for the original and 2.35:1 for the remake. The original looks very good. The black and white picture is clean and quite clear, and although a few nicks and speckles are present, their impact is negligible. Blacks are deep, whites are bright, and shadow detail is excellent. The look of the remake is even better. The image appears virtually pristine. Colour fidelity is excellent and even difficult colour situations are completely free of any blooming. Edge enhancement appears to be non-existent.

The original version is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The audio is in good shape — free of any age-related defects — and is fairly rich given the limitations of the mix. Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score is nicely conveyed. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included. The remake has the advantage of a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which obviously provides a much more enveloping experience. The surrounds appear to be used less than one might have expected, however, being mainly restricted to more subtle ambient effects. Alfred Newman’s updated arrangement of Herrmann’s original score sounds lush, but somehow, the original’s comparative lack of dynamic range fits the grimness of the subject matter better. The remake also has a DTS 5.1 mix available. Dolby Digital Surround tracks in French and Spanish are included as are English subtitles.

For both versions, Universal has commissioned making-of documentaries by the prolific Laurent Bouzereau. The one for the original is almost 30 minutes long and relies mainly on new interviews with Gregory Peck and J. Lee Thompson. Despite the fact that so many of the other principals are no longer with us, Peck and Thompson are able to cover most of the various aspects of the production in sufficient depth to give us a pretty good understanding of the film’s background and actual production issues. The documentary for the remake is a really comprehensive effort — some 80 minutes in length. It also relies heavily on new interviews to provide information, with all the principal filmmakers participated including Scorsese, Nolte, and De Niro. Pre-production planning, all aspects of production, and post-production issues are all covered in detail. It’s especially interesting to hear Scorsese’s remarks on how he came to be involved in what would be his first 2.35:1 film. For a fan of the film, this documentary is a thorough, entertaining resource.

While the documentaries are the main supplements on each DVD, each comes with a number of additional items. The original includes a short section of production stills and poster artwork, the original theatrical trailer (plus a promo for a horror compilation called Boogeymen), some production notes, and brief biographies/selected filmographies of the cast and director. DVD-ROM features as advertised on the box are simply links to Universal properties and hardly worth mentioning.

The additional supplements for the remake are substantial. On the first disc there is a THX Optimizer with provides a useful procedure for calibrating your set for ideal audio and video, though it’s no substitute for “Video Essentials.” This is followed by a script-to-screen comparison that allows one to view the completed film in parallel with the shooting script — a substantial and highly interesting supplement that Universal has previously included on a couple of its DVD releases to good effect. On the second disc, after the documentary, there is a nine-minute set of deleted scenes. There are eight in all, presented with dialogue intact, but no background sounds or music. They provide some additional insight into either the Bowden family relationships or the Bowden/Cady cat and mouse game, but none are that compelling that you wish they had been included in the final film. Following this are behind-the-scenes looks at the shooting of the Fourth of July parade and of the houseboat, only about two minutes each, but quite interesting. There are photograph montages of the transformation of the Cady character, of the various cast members, and of Scorsese directing the film, totaling nine minutes in all. Following these are examples of matte paintings used in the film, the theatrical trailer, cast and filmmakers biographies/filmographies, and a 12-minute sequence of opening credits for Vertigo, Psycho, Spartacus, and Casino as designed by the late Saul Bass (who also did Cape Fear).

I see that I’ve pretty well already covered my concerns with the two films. Basically, if the Leave It to Beaver family of the original could be replaced by at least a hint of the more dramatically interesting family relationship of the remake, that would be about the only way you could improve the original version.

I could complain about a lack of director commentary on either film, but it would be quibbling to some extent. Both directors did participate in the making-of documentaries. A commentary would have been more beneficial for the original, given that the remake’s making-of documentary is so thorough.

We have two fine films in the original and remake versions of Cape Fear. The original is the better film overall. Being forced to imply much of its terror by the censorship rules of the time, its suspense is cleverly and logically built to a satisfying conclusion. Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady is a masterpiece of first implied and then revealed brutality. The remake adds a satisfying dimension to the story through its depiction of the Bowden family tensions, but the film is ultimately let down by Robert De Niro’s overdone depiction of a Cady who becomes a virtual movie monster by the end and by its unrealistic method of bringing the main characters together at the houseboat. Both films benefit from Universal’s careful attention to detail in their DVD releases.


Both defendants are free to go and co-conspirator Universal is given the court’s commendation for its DVD efforts. This court is adjourned.

Here are the top ten things we know: 1) She lives in Ohio 2) She is MWOC unless you count her two dogs 3) Believes Avatar was NOT the greatest movie ever made 4) Operates on a primarily nocturnal basis 5) Wants to write the screenplay for the movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle 6) Watches a variety of shows on television including, but not limited to: Castle, @midnight, Face Off, Sherlock and Whose Line is it Anyway? 7) Does not believe anyone will actually read this besides the editor (hello, Editor!) 8) Has attended more than one N*SYNC concert in her lifetime but only one NKOTB concert 9) Was in a car crash that would have killed her had she not been wearing her seat belt 10) Is in the process of catching up on Supernatural (incidentally would possibly leave her husband for either of the Winchester Brothers depending on the episode in question) and the bonus! 11) Enjoys reading, writing, laying on the beach (long walks tire her out) and assorted snack foods like frozen M&M's.
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