Sunday, February 6, 2011

Movies! Cape Fear

It just keeps snowing here in Ohio, so I've been watching a lot of movies and sulking. It seems like the adult way to handle bad weather. Also, I'm not getting a lot done because I've been smashing ice with a snow shovel for hours, and I'd like to apologize for neglecting my blog for days at a time. Someday the sun will come out, and we will all be happy, well-adjusted people again, full of life and laughter and love. Until then. . .

Let's talk about Cape Fear. The original was released in 1962, and starred Gregory Peck as the upstanding lawyer who is terrorized by obsessed and clever recent parolee Robert Mitchum. There's something undeniably steamy about Mitchum, isn't there? I think it's the eyes, the drawl and the attitude. Even here, where he basically plays the scum of the earth, he's still hot. Mitchum as Max Cady attempts to completely destroy Peck's life by going after his career, his wife, his daughter and even his dog. I can't imagine how shocking this movie must have been fifty years ago. The censors were all over this movie at the time, because of the implications that Cady was going to attack Peck's young teenaged daughter. The closing scenes where Peck and Mitchum battle for Peck's family are suspenseful and harrowing. In the 1962 version, the lines between good and evil, upstanding and sleazy are clearly defined. Mitchum is bad. Peck is good. Peck's wife and daughter are innocent players in this game of wits and strength. As one of Cady's victims says, "You're just an animal--coarse, lustful, barbaric. Max Cady, what I like about you is you're rock bottom."

Now, if you want to talk about the modern version of "coarse, lustful and barbaric," let's talk about the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, directed by one of my favorites, Martin Scorsese. Here we have Nick Nolte as the not so upstanding lawyer who buried important information about his client, Robert Deniro as Max Cady, fourteen years before. Nolte is at least partly responsible for Cady spending that time in prison. Jessica Lange plays Nolte's disillusioned, gorgeous and high-strung wife with flighty hands and suspicions about her husband's fidelity. And the amazing Juliette Lewis plays the fifteen year old daugther, a much different character than the 1962 version. Lewis almost steals the film from all of these seriously hard hitting actors. She's the perfect combination of innocence, curiosity, world-weariness and naked emotion. Cady partially infiltrates the family by connecting with the troubled Lewis, something that never would have happened in the 1962 version. There is a scene when Lewis first meets Deniro on a high school drama stage that is one of the most uncomfortably effective scenes I have ever seen. Scorsese does some strange visual things in this movie that border on surreality sometimes, nearly making it a fable. It's brutal and gorgeous and epic, right up to the cataclysmic finale that crushes every character back to complete destruction and hopefully rebirth after the credits role. Well, almost everyone has a chance at rebirth, with Lewis' haunting closing lines, "Because if you hang onto the past, you die a little every day. As for myself, I know I'd rather live."
These two films are fascinating social commentary when watched back to back. How much did morals and the family unit change in the thirty years between the two versions? And how did entertainment change? I'm sure the 1962 censors would have had heart attacks over the more recent Cape Fear. To have such a morally ambiguous hero, not to mention a darker and much less innocent daughter character, would have outraged them. Both versions are beautifully written, beautifully acted, suspenseful, disturbing for their times, and great paranoid, claustrophobic thrillers. And both, in their own ways, are testaments to the bonds shared by family members, and how those bonds become stronger and more meaningful when tested by brilliant agents of vengeance and evil.

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