The Original Was Better

Film remakes are generally bad ideas, at least when a good movie is being revisited. If the original movie was a stinker, what’s there to lose? Of course, a bad movie isn’t likely to be remade — one hopes, anyway.

Having experienced the new Robocop and watched Martin Scorsese at the Academy Awards, I was reminded of the esteemed director’s own curious venture into the realm of remakes. The movie was Cape Fear, in 1991.

Scorsese presented his reimagining of the original 1962 film, which the director himself described as a “perfect B movie.” Directed by J. Lee Thompson, the original Fear starred Gregory Peck as a Southern lawyer whose family becomes the target of a vengeful predator, played by Robert Mitchum. Filmed in black-and-white, and with a memorable score by the great Bernard Herrmann, the earlier film was a masterful thriller whose cast and crew elevated it well above the B level.

Though Peck won an Oscar the following year, playing another lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Mitchum steals Cape Fear. Serving as his own producer, Peck realized that the character of Max Cady (Mitchum’s role) was the focus of the film, and he personally solicited Mitchum for the part. Mitchum in turn responded with one of the best performances of his career, rivaling the psychotic preacher/murderer he played to perfection in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955).

Scorsese approached his remake with all the technical virtuosity he’s continued to hone throughout the years, particularly in terms of editing.

The result is very flashy indeed. Where the original Cape Fear smoldered and simmered, Scorsese’s version blasts and explodes. His striking visuals and dynamic cutting are not enough to distract us from the film’s largely unappealing, unsympathetic and sometimes preposterous characters, however. Instead of a suspenseful thriller, what Scorsese ultimately delivers is more of a horror film, particularly in terms of the deliriously sadistic climax.

The credibility and menace of the ’60s film bubbles over into a ’90s psychodrama of marital discord, religious fanaticism, sexual perversion and unmitigated brutality, with Nick Nolte subbing for Gregory Peck and Jessica Lange as his weepy, irritated wife, a role that went to future game-show panelist Polly Bergen in ’62. Robert De Niro’s Max Cady, festooned with tattoos of religious vengeance, has more in common with Jason Voorhees than Mitchum’s more convincing villain.

Everything in Scorsese’s film is exponentially exaggerated and overblown. As opposed to Mitchum’s character, who spends seven years in the slammer for sexual assault, De Niro is in there for 14, during which time he goes from being illiterate to well-versed in everything from the Bible and the writings of Nietzsche to Henry Miller and Thomas Wolfe, his literary education sandwiched in between a variety of prison sexual torments that, thank goodness, are merely described instead of shown.

Where Mitchum contents himself with beating up a prostitute, De Niro handcuffs his victim to a bed, proceeding to literally bite off her cheek as foreplay. Mitchum kills one person on-screen; De Niro gets two (in glorious color). The climax in the original takes place in and around a houseboat on a quiet river; Scorsese gives us a raging maelstrom with all kinds of additional blood, guts and fireworks to boot.

Products of their respective times, the two versions of Cape Fear serve as a perfect example of how an expensive remake, even in the hands of a masterful filmmaker, can still fail to measure up to its more modest predecessor. Something new is not always something gained.