Monday, February 1, 2010

Quick Thoughts on Scorsese's Cape Fear

The first 20 minutes of Cape Fear is hilariously manic and are some of the best sequences Martin Scorsese has created. Scorsese's A.D.D gives the viewer the sense that anything can happen in this remake of the classic thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (both who have cameos in this film). Like Scorsese did with his other early 90's film The Age of Innocence, he punches up this rather ordinary thriller with all kind of visual trickery that distract from the fact that what you're watching doesn't seem like a Scorsese movie. Scorsese uses everything from deep focus to smash cuts to tilted shots/Dutch angles, to low angles, to bird's eye view…everything seems lovingly homaged here by Scorsese as he gleefully picks his favorite parts from the likes of Hitchcock and Laughton and others to create a fun, exhilarating experience for any cinephile. I have the feeling this year's Shutter Island, another genre exercise for Scorsese, will have the same feeling.

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.

More stills:























  1. I pretty much agree with your assessment but in all honesty its really a film that didn't need to be made. The original is amazing and obviously superior in any way. At least, Scorsese tried to add some moral complexity with the dysfunctional family that Cady then tries to destroy. And I do engage with it on a stylistic level but that's about it. De Niro's Cady is a one-dimensional monster lacking any of the nuances of Mitchum's version. At times, I found Scorsese's version a little too in-yer-face, like the the gruesome scene where Cady abuses poor Illeana Douglas' character that had me thinking more of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS than anything else, but I digress.

    I do agree enthusiastically with you when you said, "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." Amen! And that's why I love COLOR OF MONEY so much.

    Excellent post, as always, my friend.

  2. J.D.:

    I'm glad you mention that scene with Douglas and DeNiro. It's so odd because it's really the only scene of extreme violence in the whole movie. Granted, the scene in the kitchen with Joe Don Baker is bloody, but not nearly as violent or malicious as the rape/murder scene. It just seemed like an odd moment in a film that was really just nothing more than a genre picture.

    I like what Scorsese does here, though, as he clearly enjoys working with a big budget (this was his first film for Spielberg's Universal production company) and moves his camera enough to keep things interesting throughout the film's long running time.

    Certainly no one remembers this film when they think of their favorite Scorsese films, but it's an interesting experiment by the old master, and it's one that I didn't mind re-visiting as I happened upon it on one of my HD channels.

  3. Now that I think of it, having Mitchum and Peck (but especially Mitchum) in the picture may have been a way for Scorsese to occasionally prick his own pretentiousness. Mitchum's sardonic remarks definitely lighten the mood at points, but he hardly seems to belong in the same movie with DeNiro's baroque performance. The problem with the remake Cady is too much effort to make him intelligibly crazy in the standard monomaniacal movie fashion, while Mitchum's Cady was always more plausibly scary. But the remake is still an entertaining film and I doubt that Scorsese meant it to be anything more than that.

  4. Samuel:

    Exactly! There's nothing really scary about DeNiro's Cady...which is why the brutal scene J.D. mentions feels so out of place. That entire ending "trial scene" on the houseboat is one of the most hilariously absurd bits of acting DeNiro ever did. Baroque is a great word for it. I kind of look at Scorsese's version (you're right about how creepy the original vision of Cady is) of the film in the same way I do Kubrick's The Shining: a darkly comic horror film. Although Kubrick's film is far and away better at eliciting an eerie, genuine horror feel.