Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cape Fear

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 1991)

The best film Hitchcock never made. Okay, that's overstating the case; Marty is definitely indebted to Hitch, and this film is an ostensible homage to the Master of Suspense, but Scorsese makes it undeniably his own. It's a film that, both despite and because of its southern-fried mix of pathos and terror and pure wackiness, is truly sui generis.

Which isn't to say that Cape Fear is perfect. Relative to the rest of the Scorsese oeuvre, it would probably have to be considered one of his "lesser" films, but that really isn't saying much. It's an annoying side effect of the auteur theory that every film from a particular filmmaker (worse so if he's lauded - the more praise, the bigger problem this generally is) must be counted, even perfunctorily, in relation to what came before and after.

Putting that aside, and taking Fear on its own merits, I'm impressed that it works at all, and surprised at how much I enjoyed it. At first, it feels as though it's going to be a train wreck - an experiment that's bound to fail. Two minutes into the film and the parameters are blatant and dispiriting - this is Marty doing Hitchcock, down to the last detail; a contemporary thriller that looks and sounds like Psycho. The lighting, the color, the music - all too obvious, too artificial to take seriously - and that's before De Niro opens his mouth.

Stick with the film through its silliness, though, and a curious thing happens. It begins to seem less silly and more scary. The projected menace of De Niro, so deliberate at first, begins to feel credible. Even his mangled southern accent eventually recedes into the background. The mood becomes organic, not a forced product of the stagy lighting and elaborate camerawork. And then there's the humor, which I submit is the saving virtue of the film, and the glue that holds together its chaotic molecules. When Scorsese keeps at least one eye trained on the twisted comedy of the story, the film is wicked fun. Only when it crashes overboard into the swirling waters of self-seriousness does it feel like a mishap.

It's tempting to look at this film as a formal exercise above all - the chance for Scorsese to play with a new set of toys - the toolbox of Hitchcock, as it were. The plot is focused, brisk, and efficient, and this enables all sorts of stylistic discursiveness, which in the hands of any other director wouldn't be nearly so exhilarating. But beneath the elements of "exercise" there's actually a fair amount of thematic red meat: an intense portrait of a family in crisis, and an alarming reminder of the limits of the Law. The family dynamic Cape Fear is familiar enough at the outset; like a good 99% of all families, there are already currents of discontent. Husband and wife (Notle and Lange) are nominally happy, but we soon find that they live in a barely-suppressed state of mutual resentment, which only makes their adolescent daughter (Lewis) even more eager to flee the nest. When the catalyst of Max Cady is added to the mix, all hell breaks loose, and we are given a harrowing look at the limits of our social constructs - at what point to love, loyalty, trust, and the law break down?

These questions are taken seriously by the film, and it's the precise method in which they're taken seriously which reveals the seams in this otherwise sound vessel. Hitchcock's genius was his ability to create dazzlingly suspenseful movies with rich psychological subtext - he built his stories on a solid foundation of lust, obsession, betrayal, etc - all the sordid things we don't like to think about unless we're in certain environments - the movie house being one of them. The artificiality of the films made for a safe place to explore the dark territory of the subconscious. Modern filmmaking, in which realism has become naturalism and the high-artifice of the films of yore has become passé, goes more directly for what used to be only hinted at. Scorsese, in a gambit that I laud for its ambition, attempts a kind of fusion of the two traditions - the stylistic tropes of 50s and 60s cinema combined with a level of explicitness and postmodern self-awareness that didn't exist back then (at least not in mainstream cinema), and this produces some tonal dissonance. The most obvious example is the tempestuous final sequence of the film, wherein Leigh (Jessica Lange) makes her desperate appeal to Cady (a brilliant performance by Lange), Cady soliloquizes about the Law and quotes reams of Scripture - all of which is a deeply odd combination of pathos and psychosis - and all of which is repeatedly interrupted by fire, floods, waves, thunder, lightning, and fist fights. And it goes on for what feels like hours. There's compelling, heady stuff in these scenes (and others), but when its tossed in a blender with all the other noise, the subtext loses much of its effectiveness.

Plenty of the film does work. The exchanges of dialogue are top-flight noir; alternating nicely between funny and disturbing. Scorsese does manage at least one sequence of suspense that would have done ol' Hitch proud - when Cady infiltrates the house and kills the private detective by dressing up as the housekeeper. The reveal of this moment is shocking and delightful, and it's too bad the rest of the movie couldn't maintain such a careful balance. But that's okay - even after the climatic storm on the titular cape, it winds down to a satisfyingly uneasy conclusion, and feels as though it has been worth the ride.

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