As remakes go, Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) is an effective thriller – but wait till you watch the original film.
Made by renowned director J Lee Thompson, the 1962 Cape Fear is simpler, morally less muddled, and a far more terrifying movie. It features the legendary Robert Mitchum as the criminal who harasses the lawyer who sent him to prison. De Niro played the role with heavy tattoos, a psychotic laugh and sickening displays of violence. Mitchum just has to slide into the frame to send chills down the spine.
While the original film can be rented for a fee from Prime Video, the remake is available to subscribers. If Indian viewers find the climax of both films familiar, it’s because it was lifted for Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993).
Thompson based Cape Fear on John D MacDonald’s novel The Executioners. Max Cady (Mitchum) begins stalking the lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) soon after he is freed from prison. From targetting Boden’s family dog to preying on Bowden’s wife and daughter, Max Cady is unrelenting and unshakeable.
Given its vintage, the film, unlike in the remake, mostly suggests rather than directly depicts violence. The influence of Alfred Hitchcock, who designed the storyboards for the film, is most evident in the sequence when Cady follows Sam’s daughter right into her school.
The gloves are off in one of the most disturbing scenes, which revolves around Max and Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen). Mitchum, a brilliant actor who used his physicality to tremendous effect in his films, holds little back as he treats Peggy like a rag doll.
Scorsese’s remake upped the stakes in unwelcome ways. Sam Bowden isn’t an upright lawyer anymore. His daughter is older and sexually curious. Max Cady hogs the show, upsetting the original production’s moral balance. Some films suffer when remade, even when the director is Martin Scorsese.