As the 1980’s drew to a close, and Martin Scorsese undertook the task of filming a Cape Fear remake, it seemed that perhaps great filmmaking might have passed him behind. It had been ten years since he had made a near masterpiece with Raging Bull and brought Robert De Niro his second Academy Award and brought together one of the greatest on-screen duos with De Niro and Joe Pesci. Scorsese had his moments in the 80’s though with The King Of Comedy and The Last Temptation Of Christ nothing was living up to what had come before with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. Then hit 1990, and his opus was born with a return to the streets and life he was more familiar with in Goodfellas. Goodfellas was a cultural phenomenon and revolutionized a genre of films that had been around since Howard Hughes was producing films. The gangster movie was reborn and with a vengeance. It would appear that Scorsese could do whatever he wanted to make anything he felt the desire. Rumor has it this wasn’t the case.
A script had been floating around tasked to remake the 1962 thriller Cape Fear which was a legendary movie with outstanding performances from Robert Mitchum and all-time good guy Gregory Peck. Remakes are a very tricky territory and rarely if ever live up to the original. Only a perfectly casted and directed version could work. The studio initially wanted the already legendary Steven Spielberg to take the helm on this seemingly daunting task. Spielberg declined and recommended Scorsese and helped the studio, his own Amblin Entertainment, convince Marty to undertake the project by telling him that if he made this sure to be the commercial film, he would have the freedom to make any movie he wanted after that.
Scorsese agreed and pulled his good friend along for the ride, Robert De Niro. De Niro immediately decided to play the harrowing villain Max Cady in a real change of gears for De Niro. De Niro seamlessly transitioned from consummate gangster and an Italian tough guy to southern bread psychopath. The juiciest role by far in the film and no doubt the most fun to play.
Cast to play his opposite was notorious Hollywood bad boy, Nick Nolte. Nolte’s family would be round out with the lovely Jessica Lange playing his wife and the ever-versatile Juliette Lewis as his nubile young daughter. Lewis would end up stealing a good portion of the movie and come away with a much deserved Oscar nomination.
Wisely not doing a frame by frame remake of the original Cape Fear (a la Gus Van Sant’s awful Psycho remake) but he made a classic thriller a new classic Scorsese movie without losing the integrity of what made the original so great. Scorsese was at the top of his craft during this time. With Goodfellas and Cape Fear he trusted his camera angles and let his actors act. It was sharp and raw with a feeling that puts you in the moment and never let’s go.
Martin got the best out of every actor and gave legitimacy to this remake when several original actors agreed to appear in the movie, and it didn’t feel like a half-hearted way to garner approval with traditional film audiences.
What Scorsese was able to do with Cape Fear was lay out exactly how a remake should be done and that it can be. What Cape Fear wasn’t able to do is show that not every classic film SHOULD be remade. All the elements have to come together as one. The Actors have to be just right the director has to be bold enough and smart enough not to let the film flow and be it’s own. Scorsese was not afraid to make some scenes seem over the top or, dare I say cartoonish, it was the terror that was central element that mattered and without a doubt Marty and De Niro terrified to the core of what could be called the most celebrated remake in cinematic history and only a film appreciator like Mr. Scorsese could accomplish such a feat.