Saturday, October 25, 2003

cape fear: every man has to go through hell to reach paradise

When Martin Scorsese's reworking of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear hit the theatres in India, the reviews I read talked about how De Niro's working of Max Cady was over-the-top and hammy. This was the only memory I really had when I started watching the film. Of course, since that time I had learnt more about De Niro, Scorsese, their working relationship, Scorsese's Hitchcock connections (Bernard Herrmann, Saul Bass, and in this film, production designer Henry Bumstead). I had also made the mappings: Robert Mitchum played Cady in the original and made a cameo here as Lt Elgart; Gregory Peck played Sam Bowden in the original and appeared (in what would tragically be his last cinematic appearance!) as the Bible-spouting righteous lawyer Lee Heller (which almost seems like a spoof at some level of his most cherished performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird); Martin Balsam who played Police Chief Dutton in the original appears here as the Judge who puts a restraining order on Saw Bowden.

The film opens with a classic Saul Bass (who was now collaborating with his wife Elaine) sequence: the credits are overlaid on ripples of water, tinged with colours that reek of fear and unease, and somewhere in the background are eyes (I scream Vertigo!) and face shots (from what was, as the excellent Making Of tells me, unused footage from a sequence for the film Seconds). And you hear vintage Bernard Herrmann (in fact, Elmer Bernstein willingly took on the task of adapting Herrmann's score for the original for this film: a strong testament for the vitality of Herrmann's work!). "My reminiscences" are the first words you hear as an XCU of Danny's eyes switch from negative-B&W to colour, and we are informed that "Cape Fear" is a river in North Carolina (I haven't seen the original so I didn't know what the title referred to). Ft Lauderdale in South Florida aided with some innovative set design stands in for North Carolina here. The whole film works in flashback (ending with Danny's voiceover concluding here reminiscences). There is a reference to her working on this in the film: one of the many touches that elevate this film from being a very fast-paced (great editing from Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker) tingling effective thriller to being a great addition to Scorsese's impressive canon. There are other Bass elements in the film too, but some are best left to be relished on viewing.

The original had Cady returning to punish Sam Bowden for having testified against him. This reworking has Sam Bowden playing Cady's defense attorney who, in 1977 in Atlanta, had to put together a defense for a charge of rape and battery. The victim was a 16 year old girl. In a moment of "playing God" and being self-righteous, Bowden had suppressed evidence of the promiscuity of the victim, evidence that would have helped Cady's case. Bowden believed that Cady deserved punishment, and in some sense, took the law into his own hands. Cady, meanwhile, suffering from the characteristic horrors of prison life, builds himself up physically and mentally: being illiterate he teaches himself to read and write, and educates himself in literature and law (the biblical references are ominous when De Niro spouts them in a very convincing Southern accent). All this we find out in the course of the film, which stays on track, as being a thriller demands. Not satisfied by adding so much grey to the characters of Bowden and Cady, Scorsese and Strick also take us on another horrifying journey to the rotting centre of the familial relationships of the Bowden: Sam's infidelity, Leigh's unease and Danny's insecurity, fear and emotional vulnerability. Cady's attack is not physical -- it targets the root of the evils that ail the family, twisting it about and extracting more pain than a simple man-to-man fistfight. Every alternative to tackling Cady's relentless attack proves ineffectual, right up the very end. Max's inevitable destruction at the end leaves the family scarred for life: Sam has indeed learnt about loss, and the reunited family has been devastated beyond repair. This is where the film really works: at the psychological level.

Everything works here, especially De Niro's well-researched performance (Cady's tatoos even reminded me of The Night of the Hunter, where the Reverend Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum, has LOVE tatooed on the fingers of one hand, and HATE on those of the other). Scorsese's maiden use of anamorphic Widescreen pays off as a great way to explore the dark tones of Strick's script. And there are the Hitchcock references: a silhouetted view of Lori Davis' (Illeana Douglas) vicious disfigurement at the hands of Cady recalls the shadows of Psycho; the 4th of July parade has strong echoes of the tennis match in Strangers on a Train; the never-ending climactic struggle between Bowden and Cady is reminiscent of Gromek's killing in Torn Curtain.

Speaking of Torn Curtain, Hitchcock/Herrmann fans will remember that this film marked the unfortunate parting of the two over a disagreement on the tone of the score (Elmer Bernstein's version on the accompanying Making Of varies a bit in that it attributes the choice of desired mood directly to Hitchcock instead of the producing studio, Universal). Herrmann's unused score for the film has popped up on several compilations since (Herrmann even used one of the cues titled Gromek in a later film). When Cady falls burning into the stormy river, another Herrmann cue begins to play. This cue, titled The Killing, comes from the unused score and not from the score for the original Cape Fear. A grand bout of acknowledgement to Scorsese and Bernstein for resurrecting this wonderful piece.

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