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Cape Fear (Blu-ray Review)

31 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for strong violence and for language.
Stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis.

About six weeks after experiencing Mean Streets love at first sight at a tiny first-run theater in October, 1973, I caught Martin Scorsese’s debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door (complete with the Bell Notes’ recording of "I’ve Had It" on the soundtrack) at an AFI screening. From that point on, Scorsese became my favorite “working” director, and I made it a point to see everything he did immediately twice, bang-bang — a string halted by this stylish remake because the time pressures of work atop small children jettison a lot of life’s luxuries. So this being the first time I’ve seen Cape Fear-’91 in almost two decades, I had a wealth of reactions, and here are a few (bang-bang again):

*To the immediate point: The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic, which only increases what I sense is widespread frustration with Universal when it comes to catalog titles. You just never know. Last year, they messed up the studio crown jewel of its era (Spartacus) in the superior format — and this despite the fact that it had undergone an expensive and hugely trumpeted restoration not that many years earlier. Then, around the same time, they turned around and did an excellent job with Carlito’s Way.

*I don’t understand the not infrequent assertions that director J. Lee Thompson’s original 1962 version of this homicidal-stalker thriller was superior — other than conceding that, as the killer bent on seeking revenge against his former lawyer, Robert De Niro has to do an awful lot of heavy lifting to accomplish what Robert Mitchum did merely by showing up and not acting as if he once recorded a Calypso album. And yes, the original has some sterling black-and-white (A Star Is Born’ s Sam Leavitt), though it’s equalized by color work here. To a great degree, the original was “made” by Bernard Herrmann’s score — which Elmer Bernstein then adapted effectively for the remake.  And do not make the mistake in thinking that the original was well received at the time. When I went downtown to see it age 14 in ’62 (same day as Kirk Douglas’s Lonely Are the Brave for a memorable two-fer), it was being widely reviled.  When I programmed it for the AFI Theater a couple decades later, I couldn’t find a single positive review from the time to quote in the program note.

*Actually, the ’62 version remains a good melodrama for its day, but the family dynamics — leaving Mitchum’s Max Cady psycho momentarily out of the picture — no longer existed as an accurately representational model other than in perhaps Rick Santorum’s mind. Wesley Strick’s smart script for Scorsese’s version is all about dysfunction — starting with the fact that lawyer Nick Nolte played a little fast and loose with his client’s case in a way that Gregory Peck’s original (about half-a-year before To Kill a Mockingbird) never would have. The point here — and it’s discussed on this Blu-ray’s outstanding feature-length “making of” documentary carried over from the standard DVD — is that De Niro’s version of Max plays on the dysfunction and lack of trust among his targeted family’s members.

*De Niro is over the top in an intentionally over-the-top movie, but what a thrill it is to see him actually doing real acting again in what was his seventh of eight Scorsese collaborations. I’ve never been a huge fan of Bang the Drum Slowly, but from Mean Streets through say, Jackie Brown, I thought De Niro arguably the greatest actor in the history of American cinema (Taxi Driver and The Last Tycoon in the same year? — unbelievable). Ever since Analyze This turned him into Broderick Crawford, my former assessment seems like something out of the 1800s.

*In serving what was Scorsese’s first anamorphic movie, I had forgotten what incredible production values Fear II had: De Niro, Nolte, Jessica Lange and cameos by the ’62 version’s Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam. And all this atop Henry Bumstead for production design, Bernstein for scoring and Freddie Francis as cinematographer? About the only major contribution by a relative unknown was Juliette Lewis’s as the vulnerable Nolte-Lange daughter, and she got a supporting Oscar nomination.

*I remember a leading film critic of the day (still is) articulating the irk I shared that Scorsese’s achievement was undervalued or taken for granted by so many reviewers. And noting that if some unknown had turned in the same movie — think the Coen Brothers of Blood Simple, though this is my example, not his — they would have all been doing handstands. I agreed then and agree now, though it probably didn’t help that Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs came out the same year and comparably tempered its melodrama on its way to a bundle of major Oscars. So is Fear better than Lambs? No; I won’t go there.

*Fear was Scorsese’s biggest commercial hit up to that time (try $79 million and change vs. the immediately preceding Goodfellas’ $46 million and change). I think people are foolhardy when they dismiss Scorsese’s few purely “commercial” projects when so few purely commercial movies of the past quarter century — by anyone — have been satisfying at all (talk about a lost art). It’s all what you bring to the project, and sometimes there’s a lot of survivalist savvy involved. Cape Fear was exactly the movie for Scorsese to make before embarking on something as risky as The Age of Innocence (still his most underrated movie, even though Richard Corliss picked it year’s best even at the time). And The Color of Money, which I actually think is pretty splendid until it loses some petrol maybe two-thirds in, may have saved his career after the prodigious money losses of The King of Comedy followed by the commercially marginalized indie charms of After Hours (I couldn’t even get to USA Today to run my review until four days after it opened).

And, by the way: Goodfellas did only $46m? Why do we even care about box office reportage?

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