PABST BLUE RIBBON

Robert Mitchum’s ability to go from unrepentant menace in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear to attractive protector to Marilyn in River of No Return and Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, to husband-lover-father in The Sundowners to imperturbably stoic Pug in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, represented more than just an actor who admitted that he’d play anything just for the money; the roles denote attitudes of masculinity. In looking him over, it somehow seems right that he was arrested for grass possession because he typified disdain for obedience; he was a living example of pulp fiction. And it also seems to make perfect sense that he was a rugged solider in war movies, a sleepy-eyed cad or an extremely nonchalant dick in film noir: he was so contemporarily American that he was like a Pabst Blue Ribbon poster boy—a paunchy belter of booze, broads and baddies. (And it’s why, despite what some fans and critics argue otherwise, he was out of his comfort zone in westerns.) Mitchum always wanted to be a better actor than the slugged icon of contempt he freely admitted to embellishing. John Huston sought out Mitchum’s genuine “air of casualness, his lack of pomposity” for Heaven Knows, in which the actor (and the audience) discovered that his cragginess would find its match in Deborah Kerr’s refinery. Opposites, of course, are sexual magnets, and if Mitchum can only dare to dream about what’s underneath Kerr’s religious habit, he’s given the chance to do much more in Fred Zinnemann’s Sundowners. (There’s no doubting they rocked their tent cots; they do it more demurely in The Grass is Greener.) A short time later Mitchum would exhibit the effectiveness of being a startlingly cool hazard in J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear. When Mitchum says to Gregory Peck about his daughter, “She’s getting to be as juicy as your wife,” we applaud the nuanced benefits of 1962 language constraints; when he’s going after Polly Bergen, we appreciate the dearth of explicit sexual violence, though, as Bergen recounted years later, the scene was so intense that when the director yelled “cut,” she and Mitchum continued and had to be physically separated. Imagine what we’d have lost had he succeededi n dissuading the moviemakers from using him.

Is there any way to explain Martin Scorsese’s clumsy remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear other than to suspect he’s phoning in his direction? What else accounts for the total lack of fear? Though there’s one wower of a moment when beastie Robert De Niro takes a bite out of a victim, overall this bummer has no snap, crackle or pop. And no comedy: Scorsese’s use of original stars Robert (De Niro) Mitchum and Gregory (Nick Nolte) Peck is meant to be a fun skewing on justice, but Mitchum is only half awake to the mock and Peck’s cameo is destroyed by a foolish advancing of what’s coming. There are other flagrant disregards to surprises, and the editing and the in and out zoom shots of doorknobs and window shutters reinforce the notion that Scorsese’s snoozily swerving in the phone booth. How Robert De Niro won an Oscar nod for this over-the-topper is one of trivia’s great unanswerables; it might have to do with violence being “in” during that Silence of the Lambs season—20 nods in the top 6 categories were for movies in one way or another dealing with horror. No one wants to hear more complaints about such excesses but in a kick in my own rear, I’d say that what’s the matter with De Niro is he’s not as vio-scary as he should be. There’s a pansiness in the script: no one who matters is violated. (In fact, you’re desperately happy to see those who do get it finally get it.) De Niro fractures into hints of Travis Bickle and an educated Norman Bates, but unlike his work in The King of Comedy, necessitating a six pack of Raid to rid yourself of a case of the creeps, he’s got a few redeeming bits, and he’s in fantastic shape. At his ugliest, there’s something sickie-attractive about the repulsiveness—he’s every masochist’s dream of a sex monster. As the family De Niro preys on, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis couldn’t be more ambivalent; they’re practically begging for entry into the Bates School of Victims. Via conference calling, Nolte and Lange are merely serviceable, but Lewis, a Lolita-ish Linda Blair, refreshes the hackneyed vulnerable teenager of countless screamers and steals a much-too-long college theatre sequence with De Niro (during which he seems to be replaying his devil from Angel Heart). Lewis, however, opens and closes the film with totally unnecessary narration that comes off sounding like Mad Max fatalism. Even the re-working by Elmer Bernstein of Bernard Herrmann’s original score has been Maxed out. But the audience I saw the movie with had some fun anyway: as De Niro kept rising from the dead, a few young redneckers yelled, “It’s Jason!” and when Joe Don Baker pours a Jim Beam mixed with liquid Pepto Bismol, another cracked, “Hey, fix one for us, too!”

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.