Scorsese's new 'Cape Fear' reflects his dark view of life

November 10, 1991|By Janet Maslin | Janet Maslin,New York Times News Service

New York -- When Gregory Peck, playing the upright lawyer Sam Bowden in the 1962 thriller "Cape Fear," proclaims the ex-con Max Cady a "shocking degenerate," Robert Mitchum, playing Cady, simply laughs. With sociopathic glee he has stalked the Bowdens, a stalwart husband, white-gloved wife and innocent daughter who represent an early-'60s vision of clean-cut American life.

"I must say I hoped that Max would've killed them," observes Martin Scorsese, who has just remade "Cape Fear" in his own turbulent fashion, one that has absolutely nothing to do with the earlier film's white-picket-fence world.

As originally directed by J. Lee Thompson, "Cape Fear" pitted the wholesome Bowdens against the unsavory Max, a convicted rapist intent on exacting revenge against Sam, who years earlier had testified against Max at his trial. Despite the sexy insolence of Robert Mitchum's performance, that film's struggle was essentially a one-note one between good and evil.

Mr. Scorsese, not being prone to such oversimplifications, has done his best to muddy the waters. In his remake, which opens Friday, he has invested the Bowdens (now played by Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange) with a history of marital infidelity, turned their daughter into a rebellious nymphet, altered the circumstances of the rape trial and given Max's vengeance a biblical dimension.

But can any story about a middle-class suburban family, which the Bowdens remain, really suit a director whose interests so obviously lie elsewhere? "Two people sitting in an office and talking -- now that's rough!" says Mr. Scorsese, for whom such a plain image is indeed a challenge, and who has only reluctantly accommodated his whiplash, impressionistic style to the demands of conventional storytelling.

Venturing even further into alien territory, he has this time employed special optical effects, wide-screen cinematography and a vast, watery indoor set containing a houseboat, all of which lead him to describe the remaking of "Cape Fear" as "a very nerve-racking process."

Nerve-racking is nothing new for the man who made "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" (1980) and who, for that matter, lives on the dizzying 75th floor of a Manhattan tower.

Sitting on the floor of his apartment are three Academy Awards -- from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Mr. Scorsese, arguably the most innovative and influential filmmaker his generation, has never won an Oscar.

The topic prompts Mr. Scorsese, who has asthma, to reach for his inhaler. "Excuse me; you mention that and I get too excited," he jokes. But in fact, his treatment at the hands of the academy has made a difference to Mr. Scorsese -- and it has had an effect on some of his career choices, including, perhaps, his decision to remake "Cape Fear."

Last year he sat by and watched as his direction (of "Goodfellas") was deemed less successful than Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves"). And 10 years earlier, "Raging Bull" lost to another film directed by an actor, Robert Redford's "Ordinary People."

"I have to go back to that night 10 years ago, because that was when I understood that the kind of pictures I would be making would be outside the mainstream of Hollywood production," he says. "I guess because my stuff is not nice, the people aren't nice -- I don't know what it is. Still, Hollywood's highest honor is the Oscar, and you can't just say it isn't given accurately -- John Ford had six."

Mr. Scorsese's awareness of himself as a Hollywood outsider may have made him more amenable to taking on mainstream projects, like his latest.

"Cape Fear" is so Hollywood that at one time it was a prospective film for Steven Spielberg, whose Amblin Entertainment has a production credit on the film. Wesley Strick, who wrote the screenplay based on James R. Webb's earlier version (which is itself adapted from John D. MacDonald's 1958 novel "The Executioners"), started out with Mr. Spielberg very much in mind.

"I wrote it as an Amblin thriller, essentially," Mr. Strick says. "It was big-budget and conventional, and it concentrated more on plot invention than it does now." Mr. Scorsese was quick to zero in on these aspects of the screenplay -- and he didn't like them.

"Marty had quite a radar for every bit of slickness and hyperbole," Mr. Strick says. "Anything that smacked of television, all the dialogue he perceived as being 'clever,' everything that was too well reasoned, too neat, too clean, with ideas that were somewhat predigested -- he wanted it gone."

In any case, Mr. Scorsese's interests were elsewhere. At the time he planned to direct "Schindler's List," from Thomas Keneally's book about a World War II German industrialist. But he had second thoughts after his "Last Temptation of Christ" was boycotted by exhibitors, and even "Goodfellas" proved controversial when it was accused, in some quarters, of glorifying organized crime.

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