Both versions of this film have very similar plots—based on the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald—but the approach of the respective directors are so different that the two films become very distinct. The original 1962 version of Cape Fear is a Hitchcockian suspense drama, while the 1991 remake is more of a slasher film. Both films tell the story of an obsessed ex-con/rapist who manipulates the loopholes of the law in order to stalk a man he hates. It’s interesting to see the same story interpreted so differently.
The 1962 version starred Gregory Peck, one of the greatest actors of his—or any other—generation, along with Robert Mitchum, who is wonderfully menacing as the villain. It was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who helmed the excellent Guns of Navarone (Which got him a Best Director Nomination at the Oscars) as well as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, among others.
The Plot of the 1962 version: Honest lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) was the witness who sent attempted rapist Max Cady (Mitchum) to jail for 8 years. Now Cady is out and he wants revenge. He begins to stalk and threaten Bowden’s family but is careful to never be seen doing anything illegal. Bowden’s pretty wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) are endangered repeatedly but can prove nothing. Bowden calls on his friend the police chief (Martin Balsam) to run Cady out of town, but again, no evidence can be found to justify this. Cady gets his own attorney who sues the police for harassment. Bowden hires private detective Sievers (Telly Savalas) to dig up some dirt on Cady. When Cady rapes a woman named Diane he’d been having a fling with, Sievers tries to get her to testify but she leaves town out of fear. Desperate, Bowden hires a group of thugs to beat some fear into Cady but Cady is tougher than expected and wins the fight.
Bowden takes his family to their houseboat in Cape Fear, hoping to trick Cady into attacking them in front of a deputy. Bowden makes it seem as though he has gone to a completely different location but he and the deputy hide nearby. Cady realizes the deputy is there and kills him. Eluding Bowden, Cady attacks Peggy on the boat. Bowden comes to her rescue, so Cady swims back to shore to attack Nancy. Bowden realizes what has happened and also swims ashore. The two men have a final violent fight on the riverbank. Bowden manages to defeat Cady but decides not to kill him, preferring to let him spend the rest of his life in jail.
Although there is a constant implied threat of rape in the film, the censors of the time made 6 minutes of cuts, eliminating the word or any scenes that clearly indicated Cady was planning such a thing. Cady repeatedly ogles 15-year-old Nancy and makes solicitous remakes. At one point, she sees him approaching outside her school and runs in a panic but he never actually harms her, although she does get hit by a car while trying to flee. Cady was originally arrested for attacking a woman but it’s not clear what his intentions were. He beats up Diane but we’re not sure if he sexually assaulted her or not. Despite the editing the film was well received and has a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The remake of the film not only takes some inspiration from the original but also from another excellent Robert Mitchum thriller Night of the Hunter, in which a religiously fanatic killer has tattoos on his hands reading “Love” and “Hate”. In the 1991 Cape Fear, Cady’s body is tattooed with various biblical verses such as “vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord”. Nick Nolte stars as Bowden and Robert De Niro portrays Cady, who is more psychotically vicious in the newer movie. The 1991 movie is directed by legendary film maker Martin Scorsese, whose long string of great movies includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, the King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Gangs of NY, the Aviator, Hugo and the Departed, among others. The remake is at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Plot of the Remake: Sam Bowden (Nolte) was once the defending lawyer for insane rapist Max Cady (De Niro) but is so appalled by Cady’s crimes that he withholds evidence and deliberately loses the case so that Cady went to jail for 14 years. As the years go by, Bowden is having an affair and almost loses his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) but he ends the tryst and promises to be faithful from now on, yet he is tempted by his co-worker Lori (Illeana Douglas). Bowden also have a pretty 16-year-old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) who is discontented with her life. Meanwhile, Max Cady studied law in prison and assumed his own defense, unsuccessfully appealing his conviction several times. Cady has learned about Bowden burying the evidence. Now he’s out and he wants revenge.
Most of the rest of the plot is the same, with a few differences. One of the most famous scenes in the film is when Cady goes to the same movie theater as the family and makes a spectacle of himself laughing loudly at a serious film. Another scene, which is very well done, is when Cady approaches Danielle at school, pretending to be an acting teacher before revealing his true identity. Instead of running the daughter is initially fascinated by Cady, who seduces her. Also, it’s Bowden’s co-worker Lori who gets beaten and raped, rather than a random woman he met.
The characters are altered in the remake just enough to create a whole new interpretation of the tale. Bowden, as played by Peck in the original, is a stalwart man of honor who is pushed to desperation by this menace who is threatening his family. He is a man of principle who must give up those principles to protect those he loves. The Nolte version, on the other hand, is a very flawed, fallible man who basically brought this chaos upon himself by deliberately losing the case and causing Cady to spend years in jail. He is an adulterer and he even seems cowardly in some scenes, such as when he witnesses Cady winning the fight against the hired thugs and cowers behind some garbage cans to avoid being seen. This interpretation probably makes Nolte’s version more interesting, although less sympathetic. Peck’s version is just a little too composed throughout the story.
The daughter characters—Nancy and Danielle—are also very different. The 15-year-old daughter in the original seems more like an innocent little girl, whereas the 16-year-old version played by Lewis is aware of her dawning sexuality and finds Bad Boy Max initially attractive until he goes too far.
The biggest difference between the two films is the depiction of the villain Cady. In the original, Cady is menacing but in a more laid-back, less obvious way. He makes veiled threats and leers at young women, but he always maintains the façade of being an amiable southern gentleman, which helps in his attempts to trick the police and evade any blame. In the remake, Cady is more deliberately strange, such as in the movie theater scene where he purposely attracts attention to himself. He is more of a wild man in the remake, not trying to hide the fact that he’s unhinged. De Niro got an academy award nomination for his performance.
So which is better? They’re both good but in this case, the edge has to go to the original. Thompson, director of the original, tries to downplay the horror aspects of the story and make it a psychological drama about the effect that Cady’s human chess game is having on his victims. He was inspired by Hitchcock to create a drama about a good man confronted by an evil man and is caught in a situation that he had no part in creating.
Scorsese, probably the better director of the two, goes the more traditional horror route, inspired by the popular slasher films of the 80s, such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. Like a good slasher villain, he keeps returning from certain death, such as when he gets set on fire, jumps off the boat to extinguish the flames and then climbs back on board to continue his mayhem. At one point, he is mercilessly beaten by a group of guys with metal bats, but he somehow shrugs off the beating and retaliates, pummeling all his attackers. He often seems to have super human power, and at certain points lifts and manhandles the younger, larger Bowden with ease. Making Cady seem too inhuman takes the realism out of the movie and makes it seem more of a clichéd slasher flick. The restraint of the original makes it superior, although both are quite good.
So that’s all for this week’s look at a remade Hollywood movie. We’ll be back next week to dissect another film and until then, feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.