Food for Cinema Thought: Cape Fear

I first saw the original film version of Cape Fear (1962) when I was between the ages of approximately nine and twelve. I thought it was a brilliant and terrifying thriller. Robert Mitchum seemed immensely threatening, especially since I strongly identified with the actress Lori Martin as a fellow tiny girl. I didn’t even mind Gregory Peck, whom I have never particularly cared for. (Peck’s films are practically banned in my household anyway; my mother will probably never forgive him for taking Peter O’Toole’s rightful Lawrence of Arabia Oscar.)

Nearly two weeks ago, I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear. It was on cable between 2:00 and 4:15 am, which is certainly the optimal time for viewing such an unsettling story. Out of love for the original film, I nitpicked and found flaws in Scorsese’s version whenever possible. There are many ridiculous aspects – not the least of which is Robert De Niro’s undeniably weird attempt at a Southern accent – but it’s still an entertaining movie. Seeing Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam pop up in supporting roles is a nice way to reference their earlier work.

Last week I caught the original Cape Fear on TCM. I don’t know if my reaction was necessarily the result of having just seen the remake (and perhaps I like the remake better than I allow myself to believe?), but the film was no longer the great and powerful masterpiece that I always considered it. Mitchum is as intense as ever and his various confrontation scenes have not lost their potency, but Peck is much more bland than I had remembered. The camera movement is more annoyingly frenetic; the overall feeling of suspense is less suspenseful.

I will always prefer the first Cape Fear, if only because of Mitchum. It does not, however, hold up as well as I recalled. There are pros and cons, much as there are pros and cons regarding the remake. Which version do you prefer?

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