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COVER STORY : ON LOCATION : Back to Cape Fear : Director Martin Scorsese loves those old thrillers. Now, teaming on film No. 7 with Robert De Niro, he's (re)making one for himself

February 17, 1991|DAVID MORGAN

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The sprawling two-story house, with white columns out front and a greenhouse-turned-artist's studio in the rear, urges a feeling of quiet dread, even when the sun is shining. A perfect setting for a film about a seemingly happy family terrorized by an ex-con, a menacing figure returning from an anguished past. In fact, with an actor walking around the yard with a hole in his head and blood draining down his shirt, it could be the setting for the remake of "Night of the Living Dead."

Instead, it is one of the sets for Martin Scorsese's remake of the 1962 thriller "Cape Fear," which starred Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Polly Bergen. The new version stars Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange. Florida is standing in for the Carolinas, which was the setting in the John D. MacDonald novel, "The Executioners," from which both films are adapted.

The film company has set up an ad hoc home base at the site of this key location, a 10-acre estate substituting for the home of the Bowdens, who were played by Peck and Bergen in the first film and are being played by Nolte and Lange in this one. De Niro takes over Mitchum's character of Max Cady, an ex-con who comes to exact revenge on Sam Bowden, the lawyer whose testimony years earlier sent him to prison.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 10, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Photos taken on location with the movie "Cape Fear" in the Feb. 17 Sunday Calendar should have been credited to Phillip V. Caruso.

If this doesn't sound much like either "GoodFellas," for which Scorsese just received an Oscar nomination, or "Mean Streets," it's not supposed to. Scorsese, at the urging of De Niro and Steven Spielberg, is using his bag of cinematic tricks on the film genre he has always loved but never attempted: the thriller.

"I like looking at old Val Lewton films a lot," Scorsese says, rattling off a list of Newton films that include "I Walked With a Zombie," "Cat People," and "Aisle of the Dead." "I just like the look of them; they're so beautiful. It's getting to the point now where there are certain titles that become like paintings. I put on some old films on video or laser or even on 16mm, and they run like music to me. They're like old family friends. I feel at home with them."

Scorsese was also a big fan of J. Lee Thompson's "Cape Fear," but saw the remake as an opportunity to see what it must have been like in the old studio days when those great films were being made. "I just want to challenge myself," he says, during a break from shooting outside the gloomy two-story house set. "I've made so many films about Italians!"

Even so, the themes rising from the genre settings of "Cape Fear" are reminiscent of Scorsese's past works; the characters (though not Italian) speak of similar moral dilemmas, and face recognizable tests of strength and vision. While they live outside of a concrete jungle, they definitely inhabit a Scorsese universe.

"He tries to always do something different," says producer Barbara de Fina, Scorsese's wife of six years. "But the way it's evolving, it's getting very personal; I see a lot of him in the characters. I don't think he could live with making a movie that wasn't personal."

Scorsese's films--especially "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "After Hours"--typically focus on the dangers and anxieties of his characters' private lives.

"I don't know what you call what I do," Scorsese says, when asked to describe his style of filmmaking. "To me, it's like a hyper-reality of some sort. How can it blend with thin material? Of course, maybe you can revise the genre, or I should say, (make) a revisionist version that does not deny an audience the thrills of the genre--that's the trick."

But the most enticing aspect of this remake of "Cape Fear" is implicit in its title: It is more about an emotional state--for both its characters and its audience--than just about any Scorsese picture yet.

"It's about fear a great deal," Scorsese says. "Fear and anxiety and edginess. Towards the last half the family at any second threatens to come apart completely. So that's kind of nice. Tension is so funny. When all the doors are closed and a guy has no choices, it's kind of fun to see all the different options being closed away. It's almost like some sort of wry, moral game that's being played."

De Niro showed a very strong interest in a remake of "Cape Fear" when he was contacted by Spielberg, whose Amblin Entertainment is co-producing the $34 million film with Capa Productions. Together they persuaded Scorsese last summer to direct Wesley Strick's script, which had already undergone a stage of development with Stephen Frears and Donald Westlake (the team responsible for "The Grifters") before Scorsese agreed to the project.

The '62 "Cape Fear," shot in black and white, has endured for its depiction of one of the screen's strongest portrayals of a psychopath. The film, which comes down on the side of vigilante justice, is a little simplistic and out-of-step with contemporary thinking, a problem that did not escape Strick.

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