John D. MacDonald’s 1957 novel, The Executioners, lends itself very well to film adaptations. Its suspenseful, slow-burning plot and dark, ominous tone translate perfectly onto the screen, fitting right into the psychological thriller genre. The novel has been adapted to the big screen twice as Cape Fear: once in 1962, by J. Lee Thompson, and again in 1991 by the great Martin Scorsese. I think both of these films are incredibly valuable, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but I want to explore what sets them apart.
Critics in the 1960s reacted positively to the film, although not overwhelmingly so. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times praised the script and the “steady and starkly sinister style”. Critics at Variety singled out Robert Mitchum’s performance as the menacing criminal, Max Cady, who terrorizes his ex-lawyer, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck). Even today, the film’s legacy lies almost solely with Mitchum’s performance. Looking back, critics such as Vincent Canby note that Mitchum’s performance is the only thing that gives the film any claim to singularity. He even calls Cape Fear “a piece of Swiss cheese”, noting that the characters are not psychologically complex, but rather, are bent and shaped in order to fit the circumstances of the plot.
On the other hand, Scorsese’s remake is seen as a new and improved version of the original. Both Canby and Roger Ebert noted that Scorsese took this fairly standard genre exercise and put his authorial spin on it, making it more personal and cohesive. Ebert notes that Scorsese takes the thriller genre and molds it to address the obsessions and themes that show up across his filmography – his power as a filmmaker comes from his personal vision. Canby compares the film’s pace and momentum to Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), once again noting a link between Scorsese’s works.
The biggest difference between the two adaptations is how the characters are portrayed. As I previously mentioned, critics in the 1990s pointed out how the characters in the 1962 version are black and white – Bowden is a good man protecting his family, and Cady is bad, and violent. Ebert notes that Scorsese does not let anyone be the hero in his version: Bowden (this time played by Nick Nolte) is weak, and unfaithful to his wife. All the lawyers and private investigators he encounters are crooked and corrupt. His daughter (an incredible Juliette Lewis) is attracted to danger and violence. Nobody is “good” or “bad”, but everyone is complicated, with their flaws on display.
Even Max Cady (Robert De Niro) shows a range of emotions and thoughts, even if he is essentially evil. Max Cady is essentially the same character in both films: a formerly illiterate ex-convict violent rapist who is looking for revenge on his lawyer who suppressed evidence to get him put in jail. However, Mitchum’s Cady is much more subdued than Robert De Niro’s, in terms of his mannerisms, language, and even his costume and hairstyle. De Niro’s Cady is louder and more vulgar, with cartoonishly large tattoos of Bible verses and women’s names, and is frequently seen wearing bright Hawaiian shirts and smoking huge cigars. Mitchum’s version is a little quieter, and usually wears a simple and plain suit. Canby describes him as “bewitching and lazily menacing”, which is quite a contrast to De Niro’s incredibly obnoxious portrayal – yet both of them are equally terrifying, as they both possess the ability to be calm and charming, but to switch over into extreme violence at any moment.
In 1962, Hollywood practices were much different than they were in 1991. Characters were not typically portrayed as complex and flawed, but rather, the protagonist was almost always a “good guy” hero who audiences were made to care about and root for. Due to the influence of European art films and the social and political climate in the late 1960s, films started to become more complex, and characters became more ambiguous. Martin Scorsese began his career during this “New Hollywood” moment, and its influence is still felt in the 1991 version of Cape Fear.
Not only did characters become more complex towards the end of the 1960s, but films became more open and explicit about violence, sex, and vulgarity. There is a stark difference between the two versions of Cape Fear in terms of what is explicitly portrayed onscreen. One of the most horrifying scenes in both versions is when Cady brutally rapes a young woman who has brought him to her home. In the 1962 version, the events are less explicit, yet they are still terrifying and violent. What makes this version scary is how much is left to the viewer’s imagination – we don’t get to see everything that happened, but we can pretty easily guess at the horrific events. In Scorsese’s version, the rape is explicit and visceral. The young woman (Illeana Douglas) consents to sex with Cady at first, but he becomes incredibly violent and hits her in the face repeatedly. Scorsese’s portrayal is unflinching, without any sugar-coating. It is horrible, and it portrays just how ruthlessly violent Cady is.
Another aspect of the film that Scorsese makes explicit is Cady’s desire for Bowden’s daughter, Danielle. In one disturbing scene, Cady poses as Danielle’s drama teacher and verbally seduces her, sharing marijuana with her and telling her he understands her pain – she allows herself to be seduced, because she is excited by the danger. Of course, in the 1962 version, Bowden’s daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) acts more like a little girl, and the sexual energy between her and Cady is basically non-existent. In Scorsese’s version, he makes it clear just how predatory Cady really is, and makes both his and Danielle’s dark desires explicit. Canby refers to this scene as “the heart of the movie”, and compares it to the Wolf luring Little Red Riding Hood in so he can eat her.
These are the dark, and sometimes explicit differences between the two film adaptations of Cape Fear. The differences are important to consider, but I personally think they are both valuable and terrifying films, with neither one superior to the other. The original is a perfect thriller that leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination and culminates in a darkly-lit, suspenseful showdown between Cady and Bowden. Scorsese’s film is more over-the-top, visually, sonically, and character-wise. Scorsese makes explicit the violence and evil lurking beneath the surface of the original, and it is incredibly effective and disturbing. Scorsese also made the classy move of casting Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam (all from the original) as small characters in his version. He also kept much of Bernard Hermann’s original score – that big, brassy refrain is unforgettable. Before I finish, I mustn’t forget to mention a third, very important adaptation of Cape Fear…
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