Sunday 2 April 2017

Cape Fear (USA 1991 - Dir Martin Scorsese) - Notes from an introduction to the screening at East Dulwich Picturehouse on 26 March 2017

Cape Fear, the film you're about to watch, had an interesting gestation. Around the time that Martin Scorsese was finishing Goodfellas, Robert de Niro had been approached by none other than Steven Spielberg, who was originally lined up to remake the 1962 J Lee Thompson directed movie of the same name, with a view to de Niro playing the psychotic lead, Max Cady.

Scorsese meanwhile had been asked to look at a possible treatment of Thomas Keneally’s book ‘Schindler’s Ark’ for possible feature adaptation (which was subsequently filmed as Schindler's List). The rights had been bought for Steven Spielberg, but the director didn’t think he was up to it. However, after Scorsese got a script together he felt that it was Speilberg’s picture, and gave the thing back to him.

Universal Studios still had a script for the Cape Fear remake and, you guessed it, Spielberg was now less than enthusiastic. Universal had been incredibly helpful to Scorsese on the release of his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, sticking by him through all of the controversy the release of that movie caused. So Martin felt a kind of moral duty to Universal to help out with a project – and sure enough, Cape Fear was presented to him.

Scorsese had two issues with the project. He wasn’t a remake kind of guy, and he wasn’t an action movie director. As a huge cinephile, he was more than casually acquainted with the original Cape Fear, which he has described as ‘a perfect B movie.’ But he thought the project would be interesting. He hadn’t been a director for hire since 1986’s The Color of Money.

So what did he do? Well he went a bit ‘meta’ as some would describe it, drawing on elements of the original film and adapting them for his needs. 

First, the casting – in the original movie Cady was played by Robert Mitchum, a more laconic individual than de Niro’s take on the character, but nevertheless having the same unstoppable power. Scorsese cast Mitchum in his version in a different part, along with other stars from the '62 film, namely Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam.

Scorsese’s version ups the ante on the original story a little, courtesy of Wesley Strick’s muscly script, which fleshes out considerably the rather stripped down prose of John D MacDonald’s source novel ‘The Executioners’. Nick Nolte, who plays the lawyer Sam Bowden, the object of Max Cady’s hatred, is given a more complex backstory and flawed character than Gregory Peck’s role in the original film.

And Robert de Niro, cast as Cady, gives an electrifying performance, completely over the top and astonishingly physical. With his long hair, his tattoo covered body, de Niro is more than the ruthless Max Cady of the original film (and there is a view that those tattoos are there to remind viewers of Mitchum’s most famous role, the killer preacher Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s 1955 picture Night of the Hunter – I did tell you this was going to get a bit meta). Here Cady is unstoppable and unkillable, but bordering on farcical with his almost comedic southern twang and his superhuman strength – listen for a scene towards the end where de Niro whips his head around with an added on audio whistle – it’s like a cartoon. What was Scorsese up to?

Scorsese continued his cineaste approach to the remake in his choice of score. Elmer Bernstein was asked to adapt Bernard Hermann’s music from the original film, although as the Scorsese remake is longer than the original, they ran out of score, so Bernstein cheats at the end and uses parts of Hermann’s unused music for Alfred Hitchock’s 1966 movie Torn Curtain (this was the movie where Hermann and Hitchcock parted company).

Martin also employed veteran credit designer Saul Bass who, with his wife Elaine, created a kind of mini movie before the actual film, which utilises footage filmed by Bass, a film maker in his own right, and also unused shots from John Frankenheimer’s 1966 movie Seconds.

Director of Photography on the film was the great Freddie Francis. As a young cinema goer, Scorsese had eaten up Francis’ extensive back catalogue of British horror films for the Hammer and Amicus studios, but it was his superlative black and white photography in Jack Cardiff’s 1960 film Sons and Lovers, and Jack Clayton’s chilling The Innocents filmed a year later, that attracted Scorsese. Martin wanted to film the final scenes of Cape Fear in total darkness, or as near to it as possible. Francis was the man for the job, and the closing stages of Cape Fear are a masterpiece workshop of editing, photography, and a mix of studio shots and model work – the models incidentally created by UK modeller Derek Meddings, perhaps most famously known for his work on Gerry Anderson TV shows like Thunderbirds in the 1960s.

So it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the original Cape Fear, although people with a memory of it will perhaps enjoy seeing what’s been added in the remake. Sit back and watch Scorsese, a director who may not have been in love with the idea of the movie, create a tense, literate and at times darkly funny re-interpretation of a B movie classic. Not bad for a guy who dislikes remakes.

Enjoy the film.

No comments:

Post a Comment