Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear adds complexity while retaining the essential storyline and even movie score by Bernard Hermann from the 1962 film. In the original, Max Cady’s motive seemed to be revenge. He was angry that Bowden’s testimony as a witness to his crime placed him in jail. The circumstances are different in Scorsese’s version. We learn that Bowden was Cady’s attorney in a trial for assault, and that Bowden suppressed evidence showing the victim’s history of promiscuous behavior. Cady’s discovery of the suppressed evidence motivates his quest for revenge. It also becomes the original sin at the heart of Bowden’s character.
Another difference is Bowden’s marriage. In Scorsese’s version it is deeply troubled. Bowden (Nick Nolte) has moved his family to New Essex, NC, from Atlanta to make a new start after infidelity led to a crisis in his marriage. In New Essex, he and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) struggle to hold things together. Leigh worries that he is having another affair. The atmosphere is tense. Leigh is trying to pursue a career as a designer. She alludes to “lost years” in her life, and she’s probably referring to years she has lost to the marriage. The daughter Danielle is a fifteen-year-old recently suspended from school for smoking marijuana. She feels the tension in her parents’ marriage, hears their arguments, and is unhappy. Cady exploits all of these weaknesses. Perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in the film comes when he lures Danielle into the basement of her high school, pretending to be her drama teacher. This is essentially a seduction scene, where Cady convinces her of his sincerity by referring to private details of her life and her parents’ marriage. He convinces her that they share much in common and asks if he can put his arm around her. Even though she recognizes him as the man who has been stalking her family, she allows him. He makes her suspicious of her parents and what they’ve told her.
In the 1962 film, Cady reads legal books in prison. We know little about his background other than the fact than he grew up in difficult lower economic class circumstances. In Scorsese’s version, Cady goes to jail for 14 years rather than 8 and although he is illiterate when convicted he learns to read in prison and reads widely. In addition to law, we know he’s read philosophy, including Nietzsche, and he’s a fan of Henry Miller. He’s read Look Homeward, Angel (a novel whose attitude towards the past provides a faint undertone in the film) and talks with Danielle about it. Cady’s an intelligent, self-educated psychopath, enamored of the culture whose art and literature and music he’s come to love, enraged that he can’t participate in the affluence of people like Bowden. Like his predecessor in the 1962 film, he’s jealous of Bowden’s economic status. He knows that, were it not for his jail time and the economic facts of his birth and upbringing, not to mention luck, he could live the life that Bowden lives. This enrages him.
Scorsese’s film is more psychological in focus than the original, although in both films Cady understands how to inflict terror. De Niro’s Cady is more aggressive, more violent, and more ingenious than Mitchum’s.
De Niro is great as Cady, but you know it’s a role, a part he’s playing. He never melds with it. The same can be said for the other characters, with the exception of Danielle, who’s convincing as the vulnerable and psychologically damaged adolescent. The Bowden family dynamics seem false, and the actors don’t convincingly inhabit their roles. When the terror begins, the family behaves as if being stalked and threatened is normal. They walk along the sidewalks of the town, talking to one another about their plans to resist Cady. They suspect Cady has already entered their house, that he’s poisoned their dog. In general he’s created a menacing atmosphere. Paranoia and anxiety ought to have set in much earlier than it does.
The 1962 film has simplicity. It does not weigh us down with complicated information about Bowden’s marriage and past. It does not draw out elaborately the character of Cady and instead works in reductive, simplistic fashion to conjure a narrative of revenge and fear. Although, in a sense, the 1991 film gives us more to think and talk about, in particular with respect to Cady’s character, the 1962 film is a more seamless, more effective story.
While the South was a background in the original, Scorsese foregrounds it. We see images of the Confederate flag, and Cady’s past is clearly one of fundamentalism and biblical literalism. He’s covered with tattoos that use the Biblical language of sin and redemption. Cady reminds me of the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back.” His frequent Biblical references suggest O’Connor’s character the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The South is a center of fundamentalism. Scorsese uses associations with the South of violence, religious mania, and the subjugation of women as a way of building Cady’s character as well as Bowden’s.
Fear of rape is an issue in the 1991 film, but it is not its heart. We know Cady plans to have sex with Bowden’s wife and daughter, consensual sex if he can convince them, but the central horror in the film is not the prospect of rape but rather the total destruction that he wants to inflict.
De Niro’s Cady is a psychopath. Bowden as played by Nolte comes close to becoming a psychopath himself. Cady several times tells Bowden how much they’re alike, how they’re equals. One of his goals is to reduce Bowden to his level. He succeeds.