Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear isn't so much under appreciated as it is underestimated. It is recognized as significant, but what often goes overlooked is the psychological and stylistic intensity of the film. Some may say overindulgence; I would say Scorsese is telling the appropriate story. There are individual scenes which stand out as brilliant, functioning in every way needed, and an eerie menace creeps through the production. Cape Fear has and always will find a place on the second tier of Marty's work. But that is a fine place to be.
Seeing it again recently, I find more details in every passing scene, more psychological complexities with even the smallest details. Often seen as a chaotic and rapid film, every scene is meticulous in detail and staging. And, to me, the film itself is more frightening now than it once was because it is one of those rare films that can evolve in your mind over the years. Seeing Scorsese's remake against the original starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck is to see two entirely different interpretations of the same story. The original is patient and quiet, Scorsese's version is a wild and psychotic ride. They each have their merits, but Scorsese manages to push the envelope with his creation of Max Cady at the hands of the once brilliant Robert DeNiro.
DeNiro's Max Cady is a convicted rapist who, as the film opens, is being released from prison after fourteen years. He has become an educated man, using religion as a shield and as motivation. Strictly Old Testament. He has one single goal, to bring down his attorney, Samuel Bowden. Nick Nolte plays Bowden as a morally-conflicted man whose past is checkered with misdeeds. That is the beauty of Scorsese's vision; there are no true lines of good and evil. While Max Cady is clearly a maniac hell bent on destruction, Nolte's Bowden is a snake we struggle to root for. Cady plans on bringing down Bowden's life from the inside, seducing his daughter and destroying the thin line keeping the unit together.
Sam's wife, Leigh, is played by Jessica Lange as a headstrong wife whose patience runs thin throughout the film. Juliette Lewis is Danny, Sam and Leigh's young teenage daughter who becomes a target of Max Cady later in the film. More on that in a moment. Cady begins by appearing in public places, taunting Sam, encroaching on those relationships he has made outside of his family. Cady tells Sam he has done a lot fo reading, mostly books about the law, and realizes that Sam threw him under the bus in his trial. That is his motivation, to make Sam feel the pain Max felt for fourteen years behind bars. Cady continues his psychological assault on Bowden and his family, managing to stay within the law or out of the law's eye the entire time, further frustrating Bowden. There are a great number of disturbing moments in Cape Fear, all coming to a head in the climax aboard a houseboat being tossed around in a tropical storm. But the most unsettling moment comes when Danny meets Max, at her school in the theater. Cady is on the stage, in a makeshift log cabin among some spooky cardboard trees. Cady seduces Danny in an extended and disturbingly psychological scene:
The scene is one of the most haunting of the film, a patient, quiet, and disturbing moment amid the chaos. It shows the scope of Cady's intelligence, the way he can turn Danny against her family despite the fact he is clearly insane.
Cape Fear will never come with the fanfare of Scorsese's more popular, Oscar-winning films. But there is no denying the energy of Scorsese's vision and the power and depth of the performances. There are no clean getaways and no true heroes in Cape Fear, only bad and worse. It is a great moral conundrum driving the film.