More thoughts, with screencaps, after the jump...
In Cape Fear Scorsese wisely kept the original music by Bernard Herman – one of the best scores I've heard in a thriller – and makes his main character played by Nick Nolte (in one of my favorite Nolte performances) just as guilty as DeNiro's ex-con Cady. What makes the film so enjoyable is the fact that it is such a throwaway film for a master of American cinema like Scorsese. Because of that you can sense the director and his actors – especially DeNiro in what is clearly the last role where he showed any interest in making his character manically memorable – having a lot of fun here (I especially liked Scorsese's absurd metaphor for Cady's obtrusiveness: his giant-ass cee-gars). Cape Fear isn't anything revolutionary (in truth it's probably more well known for being famously parodied on "The Simpsons" than anything the film succeeds at), and it's not even one of the best films in the master's oeuvre; however, it's an interesting experiment from Scorsese that shows the man knows how to play with the conventions of a genre film.
I forgot how much fun Scorsese's remake is. The film is so manic and visceral that the viewer is left wandering what this old master hasn't revealed yet. The film definitely has a soggy middle, but by that time we could use the breather; and it all leads to an ending that is hilarious in its exuberance. Scorsese would make better films after this, most notably The Age of Innocence and Casino, but I don' think he made one as gleefully exhilarating as Cape Fear until his 1999 masterpiece Bringing Out the Dead, another film like Cape Fear where Scorsese's camera is restless, and you can really sense the director having fun moving his camera freely. That film is a joy to watch because like Cape Fear you just can't predict the film's beats.
Cape Fear is an interesting precursor to Scorsese's recent back-to-back releases of The Departed and Shutter Island (I'm basing this off of the trailer, of course) because with these films he's not interested in his usual themes of personal anguish, religious allegory, or tragic downfalls. That's both a good thing and a bad thing as I liked what he did with The Departed – in the same way I like what he did with Cape Fear – even it was clearly one of the directors lesser works; however, I feel like we haven't had a really personal film from the man since Gangs of New York. Perhaps, like after Goodfellas, he needed a break and decided to make The Departed (The Aviator was really Leo's project and passion, and I realize I'm omitting his rock documentaries, No Direction Home and Shine a Light) and Shutter Island…the former which was good popcorn fun and the latter which should follow in the same vein.
If my recent viewing of Cape Fear has taught me anything it's that even these throwaway Scorsese pictures are worthwhile additions to the master's résumé because they're examples of the director's love of cinema. These films seem like excuses for him to toss in everything he wasn't able to fit in to his more "serious" endeavors. I like that in 1991 Scorsese was willing to not just try his hand in thriller/horror genre, but to tweak it and put his own touch on it; and if Shutter Island is even half as kinetic, experimental (read: arty), and visceral a horror film as Cape Fear then I'll be more than happy to go along for another ride.