For this week’s Pick of Online film, we’ve got a two-for-one special for you: two different films – an original and its remake – both available for your viewing pleasure on the World Wide Web and both critically acclaimed in their own right. They are the J. Lee Thompson 1962 original Cape Fear and its Martin Scorsese-helmed 1991 remake.
Both films are adaptations of the novel The Executioners by John D. Macdonald, which was originally written in 1957. The source story revolves around the lives of two men: convicted felon Max Cady, and attorney Sam Bowden. Cady was witnessed raping a woman by Bowden who later testified to this at Cady’s trial. This results in a fourteen year in prison sentence for Cady, during which time he first teaches himself to read and then sets about becoming an expert on United States court law. Once Cady has been released on parole, now armed with his knowledge of the law and all its loopholes, he’s coming for not only Bowden but also his family, and in particular his teenage daughter.
Because both these films revolve so much around Bowden and Cady, I first want to take a moment to look at the actors who portray them. Thompson’s 1962 original version of Cape Fear stars Gregory Peck in the role of Bowden, and Robert Mitchum as the felon Cady. It’s become hard, particularly for my generation growing up in America, to separate Peck from the pillar of noble goodness that he portrays as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (released on Christmas day 1962), but his role as the attorney Bowden in Cape Fear predates his portrayal of Finch by a few months. Peck’s Bowden is a good man driven to extreme lengths – of which we’ll hear more later – by the spectre of Cady. Mitchum on the other hand remains one of his generation’s great underappreciated and underrated actors. Mitchum had already starred in what would be become his career-defining role as the villainous priest, Harry Powell, in The Night of the Hunter (1951), and plays Cady with a swaggering, sleepy machismo that is a joy to watch unfold and really must be seen to be appreciated. Mitchum’s Cady can almost be seen as an early Hannibal Lecter prototype: he’s doing terrible things and we don’t care because it’s so much fun to watch him slip through law enforcement’s grasp; that is, until he does something unforgiveable and the audience is brought crashing back down to earth. Both Mitchum and Peck bring their deep baritone voices to the roles, but while Peck’s is tinged with judicial authority, Mitchum’s rumbles with a dangerous mystery.
Scorsese’s film, like Thompson’s, is as much defined by the actors he chooses to portray Bowden and Cady as it is by the events of the plot. In the 1991 version Bowden is played by Nick Nolte, and Cady by a gleefully unhinged Robert De Niro. Cady in the remake appears as a different kind of evil than in the original, mostly thanks to De Niro’s performance. De Niro’s Cady is grimier than Mitchum’s, with lots of prison tattoos over his body and lank black hair; he can be charming if he wants to be – as we see multiple times through the film – but even in these moments the audience is aware of the evil lurking beneath his thin façade. Mitchum on the other hand spends the majority of the film in a white suit and boating hat, he’s naturally magnetic: a tall, dark stranger that rolls into town one day. In the original film, Thompson portrays Bowden and Cady as respective representatives of a rather black and white spectrum of good and evil, whereas Scorsese, as will be discussed below, colours each man with shades of grey. Suffice to say Nolte is a more fallible Bowden than Peck. A good example of this is when he first strikes Cady: in the original it is only after Cady has approached the Bowden family and made some leering comments about Sam’s daughter, in the Scorsese version, Cady merely looks at the family from across the street at a parade which drives Bowden into a frenzy.
The main difference between the original 1962 version and the 1991 remake – that allows for the modification of these characters – is the precise nature of the relationship between Cady and Bowden. In the Peck and Mitchum version, Bowden is an attorney who happened to witness Cady beating and raping a girl, who then testified on the stand against him. This is enough to give Cady a grudge that lasts for the length of his sentence and drives him to seek Bowden out and terrorise his life. In the Nolte and De Niro version, Bowden was Cady’s defense attorney at his trial and he found a report stating that the girl Cady beat and raped was promiscuous; yet, knowing both the extent of the violence perpetrated against the victim and that Cady was guilty, Bowden buried the report in order to ensure that his client Cady would go to jail rather than escape justice thanks to the sexist biases of patriarchal society. Cady discovers this after he teaches himself law and petitions to act as his own attorney, and this is what drives him to track down Bowden once he’s made parole. In this way Bowden has some of Cady’s blood on his hands, a fact that becomes crystal clear when Bowden attempts to brobe Cady to leave him alone and Cady responds by ticking off a laundry list of assaults and rapes that occurred to him during his incarceration. In Scorsese’s remake the two characters are more strongly linked than the pair in the original could ever be.
Because of this, Nolte and De Niro’s Bowden and Cady share far more similarities than Peck and Mitchum’s. Nolte’s Bowden is on the almost on the verge of an affair at the film’s start and De Niro later targets the would-be-mistress as an object of his revenge, whereas in the original his victim is just another local girl. The remake is dipped in this motif of guilt and entanglement and presents itself almost as a southern fever dream. Nolte’s Bowden is already dealing with his sins that he has visited on his family, then Cady shows up, and his worst mistake is personified in a dark mirrored version of himself. In the original Cady is a force of evil, solid and defined, that is being visited upon the family. The remake’s version of Cady ingratiates himself into the family, isolating both Bowden’s wife and daughter at separate moments and attempting to win them over to his side. Where Mitchum relies on his brutal physicality to depict the danger to the Bowden family, De Niro’s Cady is a smooth talking serpent that wants to lure you in close until it’s too late.
To continue on further with the plot would be to ruin the films’ endings and so I will refrain from doing so. The results are different in each film and I have issues with each of them for different reasons, but I’ll leave you to make up your own minds about them. As to which film I prefer I cannot actually choose. The 1962 version is much more cut and dry, a case of good vs evil, but it’s one of the best entries into that category. The remake is much more though provoking and less clear cut, but Scorsese makes some directorial choices that have not aged well at all, such as employing a weird “negative” effect in certain parts of the movie; in these moments it feels very much a product of the nineties. However, these are minor gripes in what are both really thrilling stories of revenge. In particular the performances in both are brilliant (albeit very different) and definitely underrated, and it is mainly for this reason that both the 1962 and 1991 version of Cape Fear are this week’s Pick of Online Film here on culturised.
The 1962 version of Cape Fear can be found with some creatively googling or through the Turner Classic Movies website. The 1991 version can be streamed through HBO or on Amazon Instant Video.