Thursday, November 24, 2011
If You Hang On To The Past
Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR is now twenty years old. My memory of its release in November 1991 is that after a pretty dry fall season at the box office when this film hit the scene it was like a shot of adrenaline, capitalizing on the excitement everyone had felt about GOODFELLAS just a year before with not only critical raves for the most part but a public response that resulted in the biggest commercial success its director had achieved to date. As sometimes happens even with box office hits the film seems to have been slightly forgotten in recent years, maybe lumped in with other such thrillers of that post-FATAL ATTRACTION era and maybe even something like CASINO, which received more of a mixed response just four Thanksgivings later, feels like it’s had considerably stronger staying power when Scorsese films are talked about. I don’t want to say that Martin Scorsese looked at CAPE FEAR as just a lark or something he made solely for commercial reasons, not at all, although reading up on how he came to direct the film it feels like that may have been at least a partial factor. But maybe more than anything else he had made up to that point it really does play as a movie about movies, serving not only as an examination of the original CAPE FEAR through his own eyes but what every hyperactive zoom and crashing musical cue he’d ever seen in countless films had meant to him and what he thought he could bring to the table if he tried doing some of that himself. There’s more to the film than that of course, but I’m not sure if any of those other elements matter quite as much in the end. I’m also not sure if I really care.
In this remake of the 1962 classic directed by J. Lee Thompson, Robert De Niro of course is Max Cady, recently released from prison after a fourteen year stretch and with one goal in mind—to find his former defense attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), recent arrival to the sleepy town of New Essex, North Carolina with wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and sixteen year-old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Once a public defender, Bowden represented Cady on a rape charge in Atlanta but when he uncovered evidence that the girl in question had been promiscuous he buried it, letting his client go to prison for the crime. When Cady tracks him down it soon becomes clear that he managed to learn about this in the intervening years and has a goal in mind to make his the lawyer “learn about loss” in a way that only he can provide. After being harassed by him a few times Bowden gets the law involved but they can’t help because, after all, the man hasn’t done anything, a situation exacerbated when Cady goes after Lori (Illeana Douglas) a young associate at Sam’s firm who he had been having a flirtation with and brutally rapes her but even she refuses to press charges out of her own shame. Desperate to protect his family and aware that there’s nothing the police can do, Bowden hires private detective Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) to stay on top of Cady but even that doesn’t mean anything when the ex-convict gets in it mind to go after the teenage Danielle.
CAPE FEAR was the first film that Martin Scorsese directed in the full 2.35 Scope format and, unless I’m mistaken, it remains the only one that he’s shot in actual anamorphic Panavision. It was photographed by Freddie Francis, famed for directing numerous horror films back in the 60s and 70s (some very good, particularly THE SKULL) but better known in film lore as a cinematographer extraordinaire on such films as David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN and, maybe most important, Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS which I was recently lucky to see a 35mm print of--I have little problem saying that it may very well be one of the most extraordinarily photographed films that I’ve ever seen. The look of CAPE FEAR isn’t quite on that level but seemingly designed to be played on the largest screen possible with a sound system that would blow out the speakers it’s always a rich-looking film continually intent on soaking in as much of its atmosphere as possible, fireworks endlessly crashing overhead, at times playing as an ultra-violent take on the sort of juicy, sweat-infused melodrama Vincente Minnelli might have made at MGM in the late 50s. Scorsese doesn’t even seem to shy away from the limitations of the anamorphic lens which can affect the visible depth of field and there is always a conscious effort to make the fullest use possible of his wide frame—even the close-ups have an undeniable sense of bigness to them and when characters are placed in the dead center of a shot by themselves, separate from the other characters, it always feels very much a part of the visual design.
The presence of old school Hollywood craftsmen behind the scenes adds immeasurably to this feel—in addition to Francis the legendary Henry Bumstead served as production designer in addition to an opening credit sequence by Saul & Elaine Bass that aren’t just similar to SECONDS, they actually contain unused footage Bass had shot for the 1966 John Frankenheimer film. Combining these elements with the use of traditional matte effects for the rumbling clouds overhead and extensive model work used for the riverboat climax makes it feel almost as if Scorsese wanted to will this production into being the last true film of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the era in which he grew up watching movies decades earlier, and make one final version of it all while he still could for posterity. Watching the way these scenes are staged, thrusting his actors into all the sound and fury imaginable I honestly wonder if the making the movie in this style would have had the same attraction for him just a few years later when CGI began to come into play. Most tellingly and famously, it has composer Elmer Bernstein adapting Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score from the original which adds an unavoidable Hitchcockian flair to things even if that director had nothing to do with CAPE FEAR and it heightens the movie-movie nature of the entire project up to the stratosphere, infusing that feeling even further during the climax where Bernstein places the famous rejected Herrmann music from Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN into the action (not something I was aware of at the time, but I’m not perfect) which sounds so ideal it’s as if the famous composer whose final score was of course for Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER had really meant it to go here all along. Even the casting of Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam from the original film in cameos seems more than just providing them with token bits—that Mitchum, the former Max Cady, gets the one part which could be called an actual supporting role seems to make sense.
As much use as the film gets out of its extensive location work in Florida subbing for North Carolina and with all the talk Joe Don Baker’s private detective makes about the South having a strong tradition of fear, I never get the feeling it was something that Scorsese was all that interested in, at least to the extent of other elements. The continuous religious phrasings flowing from the lips of Max Cady and tattooed all over him to underscore his madness feel a little too constructed as part of the script although it does provide the odd effect of making the film in some ways a De Niro-infused remake of the Mitchum character in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER filtered into the plot of CAPE FEAR. But even Gregory Peck’s cameo as a hypocritical fire and brimstone attorney which feels like several in-jokes in a single scene is an element that feels overly written more than just about anything in the film, as fun as Peck is in the cameo, and maybe is an example of how the movie is slightly tone-deaf when it comes to portraying this world—then again, Sam Bowden reading USA Today as his morning paper and taking his family to see PROBLEM CHILD, of all films (well, it is Universal—and I shouldn’t bring up this scene without mentioning just how awesome it is), could very well be looked at as an indication of the outside world encroaching on these peaceful southern towns with their long-standing traditions. For Scorsese it’s combining this tribute to old Hollywood craftsmanship with his own preoccupations of these characters that ultimately seems to matter, placing the strength of their conflict in such a setting of storm clouds and screeching Bernard Hermann music. CAPE FEAR is a MOVIE in all the capital letters that can blare, as much of an examination of genre as NEW YORK, NEW YORK was of the 40s-50s musical but maybe more of a direct tribute to its type of film than that earlier film was in its muddied way. And since he may have been consciously attempting to go for making this a flat-out hit this time Scorsese seems to have been more open to making it more of an example of that genre than a true dissection of it—good or bad, extremely violent or not, there’s not much which can be said to go against the grain of what an audience might expect from such a thriller, beyond spending more time on the complications of relationships than most films usually would particularly in how it portrays this marriage still dealing with whatever presumed past indiscretion that is just barely alluded to. The screenplay which at an early stage was possibly going to be directed by Steven Spielberg is credited to Wesley Strick (based on James R. Webb’s screenplay for the ’62 film from the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald) who also was one of the writers on the Phil Joanou thriller FINAL ANALYSIS which came out several months later—it would be interesting to compare the two since the glossy ANALYSIS has little in it which might be considered plausible human behavior whereas CAPE FEAR which is filtered through the Scorsese prism, as utterly superhuman as Max Cady seems to become at a certain point, is all about the process of fully examining characters who in other hands might come off as simple plot constructions.
One thing that doesn’t get commented on very much in relation to his films is how Scorsese seems to sometimes like stopping his momentum dead in the middle of a movie for a key scene, the point where everything turns—De Niro asking Joe Pesci certain questions as they try to fix a TV in RAGING BULL comes to mind, as well as his brief meeting with L.Q. Jones in CASINO. The equivalent sequence in CAPE FEAR does just that but it also becomes a showstopper in all the best ways, taking the slow burn of Lewis’ skittish, off-kilter screen presence and odd sexuality and in an encounter with De Niro’s Max Cady, pushing it to a level beyond what we’d expect the movie to actually do. The film seems to linger on the potential of having her encounter Cady, carefully building to the point of isolating them and then…they just talk, with him carefully poking into her brain, finding out which are the right buttons to push, separated by the frames that Scorsese is keeping them isolated in during this long discussion until he finally closes in on her. Max Cady, representation of the past Sam Bowden must confront as well as the man he never quite became, the true man his wife Leigh seems to feel that he’s never been with her own vision of their marriage seen in negative form at the point of their lovemaking and, maybe most important, the frighteningly sexualized world that his daughter is just beginning to become aware of. Even the protracted climax seems to correctly balance the conflict between each of the characters with the over the top furor of the family houseboat caught in the treacherous storm. One thing which always occurred to me about bad guys is that as colorful as they may be presented at a certain point they have to receive their comeuppance. Here, it never seems quite that easy with Cady keeping his gaze on Bowden until the very end. He’s not admitting defeat. He’s just gone as far as he knows he can, at least in this world.
Scorsese even takes the expected beat of a final scare and turns it into, not a joke, but into a necessary step in Sam Bowden cleansing himself of all his sins before he can rejoin his family for the final frame. When you hang on to the past you die, says Danielle in summing up the experience for her homework assignment at the end, an acknowledgment of the innocence the character knows she will never fully get back. CAPE FEAR is Martin Scorsese hanging onto the past, the past of what all these films mean to him, while figuring a way to still reconcile that with his new take on the material. And, in doing so, he lives. It occurs to me that in the end credits once the music fades away it’s replaced by the sounds of the swamp, presumably of Cape Fear itself, which were originally heard at the film’s beginning over the Universal logo and is reminiscent of city street noises faintly heard under the end titles of RAGING BULL. Here, those sounds continue even past when the credits end—in the DVD it goes to black but my recollection is that in 35mm prints the old “When in Hollywood Visit Universal Studios” tag appeared here at a point when we even hear the faint sound of what could be people screaming on a rollercoaster—the nightmare of where the climax takes place replaced by the theme park ride nature of it all. This isn’t usually the sort of thing he did, but maybe this once he wanted to have some fun without sacrificing the filmmaker that deep down he always has to be.
In addition to the overwhelming visualness what got people so excited at the time was Robert De Niro in full blown De Niro mode, physically massive from all his bulking up, tattoos covering his body, chomping on his cigar the size of a lead pipe and doing everything he can to correctly push the buttons of who he’s talking to with the danger of what might really happen always hanging between them. It may be over the top but it’s intentionally over the top, totally committed to his madness, sometimes terrifying, always riveting and there’s not a moment of it that is predictable. Even all these years later after countless parodies and other De Niro performances that seem meant to capitalize its memory, it remains one of his most effective characterizations. That Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange manage to stick in the memory at all placed up against him feels like a feat in itself but they’re each extremely strong—great to see Nolte as Sam Bowden fumbling in his discussions with Cady always seeming to have a reasonable answer for any desperate bargaining that Sam Bowden is trying to make and Lange’s strength insures that she never just comes off as ‘the wife’. The private arguments involving Nolte and Lange come off as their best moments but it’s almost shocking to revisit Juliette Lewis’ Oscar nominated performance here and realize just how astonishing she is, how raw, how absolutely There she is in every moment and, considering how many more actresses of that age seem to be in the spotlight now, I can’t imagine anyone who could come close to what she does with her scenes opposite De Niro particularly mesmerizing. Clearly engaged by her, they’re some of his best moments in the film as well. No one ever seems to mention the strength of a few of the other supporting performances—the legendary Robert Mitchum doesn’t have a false moment in his cameo/minor role as a police lieutenant who is in no way suggesting that Bowden go outside the law while Joe Don Baker, mixing his mixing his Jim Beam with Pepto Bismol is particularly good as Kersak, nailing the wrongheaded cockiness when going up against Max Cady, not quite as imposing as he thinks he is. Illeana Douglas also nails her own awkward attractiveness to full effect and it almost feels like an entire movie could be made of just her drunkenly flirting with De Niro or, well, anybody which I suppose makes the graphically horrible end to her night all the more shocking when it finally happens.
Since I mentioned NIGHT OF THE HUNTER in relation to this film I may as well mention that the pairing was actually the very first double bill I ever saw at the New Beverly many, many years ago which is of interest to no one but me, but still and it only adds to my own personal recollection of this movie that, ultimately, is about a memory. The framing device of Juliette Lewis’ Danielle Bowden using her recollections as a homework assignment feels a little like a key part of earlier drafts that got progressively bled out of the material as time went on but it still makes sense as part of what the film ultimately is. Douglas Sirk’s ALL THE HEAVEN ALLOWS is seen playing on the Bowden’s TV late at night at one point (well, it makes more sense than PROBLEM CHILD) and ultimately CAPE FEAR is itself a movie designed to play on some mythical late show that doesn’t really exist anymore, echoing in the background as we fall asleep to our own dreams. In its own way it’s just as much of a tribute to the history of cinema as Scorsese’s new film HUGO is. But even if CAPE FEAR isn’t anything more than a Ghost of Movies Past sent from the back chambers of a great director’s mind, it’s nice to imagine that somebody will discover it that way many years from now and allow that sense of history to infect their own dreams as well.