“Cape Fear” (1991) dir. Martin Scorsese

When director Martin Scorsese signed a deal with Universal Pictures in the late 1980s to release his passion project “The Last Temptation of Christ,” I’m fairly certain he was required to deliver a commercial film in exchange for Universal releasing such a polarizing personal film. Well, in 1991, Scorsese delivered in spades.

Forget “Boxcar Bertha” (the exploitation film Scorsese made for Roger Corman in the early 1970s), “Cape Fear” is Scorsese’s ultimate balls-to-the-wall exploitation film. Granted, it wasn’t seen that way given the large budget and stellar acting cast (Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis), but make no mistake, Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 shocker with Robert Mitchum is the ultimate Freddy-Jason stalker/slasher film.

Many Scorsese purists detest this film. To whom I say, f–k you! Scorsese loves ALL films, including the sleazy ones that used to play Forty Deuce. Legend has it that he got into a fight with one of his girlfriends, studio executive Dawn Steel, over the merits of the classic 1982 exploitation film “Vice Squad” (Scorsese angrily argued that it should have been up for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars).

Despite its disreputable pedigree, it did win Oscar nominations for DeNiro and Lewis. And it was Scorsese’s biggest box-office success until the release of “The Aviator” in 2004. I’m docking the accompanying trailer MAJOR points for NOT including the music from “Cape Fear” and substituting generic music instead. The music from Cape Fear (originally composed by Bernard Herrmann, but adapted for the remake by Elmer Bernstein) is one of the scariest scores ever composed for a motion picture. I’ve included a link to this score here:

Scorsese has always used music … especially pop music … effectively in his films. I wish I had a clip I could link to, but the use of Guns N’ Roses “Patience” during a vicious verbal fight between Nolte and Lange, while their daughter played by Lewis tearfully locks herself into her room, is brilliantly edited and shot.

“North Dallas Forty” (1979) dir. Ted Kotcheff

Ted Kotcheff is one of the most underrated directors of the past several decades.  He doesn’t have a particular recognizable style like Martin Scorsese or a Robert Altman.  Oftentimes, he makes a mediocre or bad film for every good film he does.  But Kotcheff has made some damn good movies.  And a VERY diverse list of good films: “Wake in Fright,” “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” the original “First Blood,” “Uncommon Valor” (the FIRST … and BEST … of the Vietnam POW rescue films), “Weekend at Bernie’s” and his best film, “North Dallas Forty.”

“North Dallas Forty” is based on a novel written by former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent and is thought to be a thinly-disguised version of events from when he was on the team.  Because many of the players are grossly immature, the film is often very raunchy and funny. This scene between Nick Nolte’s wide receiver Phil Elliott and Mac Davis’s quarterback Seth Maxwell (allegedly based on former Cowboy Don Meredith) is probably the best example of this.  However, the language is very rough and not safe for work:

But the film is also incredibly sad.  The film shows how much pain the players endure, oftentimes inflicting permanent damage on themselves to stay in the game and taking narcotics (with the encouragement of the heartless coaches and management) to push past the pain to keep playing.

Nolte arguably gives his finest performance as an aging player whose increasing use of painkillers to stay competitive is taking a serious toll on his body.  The opening scene (which I can’t find on YouTube) where Elliott struggles to get out of bed is particularly harrowing to watch.  Also terrific is Davis, G.D. Spradlin as the cold-blooded coach B.A. Strother  (patterned on Cowboys coach Tom Landry), Charles Durning as the heartless Coach Johnson, Bo Svenson as the dim-witted and tough Joe Bob Priddy, and former Oakland Raider John Matuszak as O.W. Shadduck.  Shadduck actually has one of the best scenes in the film where he gets into a verbal and physical altercation with Coach Johnson after a particularly rough game.  Some very rough language here, but a damn good scene:

An excellent, almost sadly forgotten masterpiece from the 1970s and one of the best sports movies ever made.

“Who’ll Stop the Rain” (1978) dir. Karel Reisz

Video

Based on the 1975 National Book Award-winning novel “Dog Soldiers” by Robert Stone (which was subsequently voted by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best novels between 1923 and 2005), “Who’ll Stop the Rain” is a dark, nail-biting film about drug running, Vietnam, and the decline of the counterculture into crime and violence. It stars Nick Nolte as a merchant marine sailor who agrees to smuggle a large quantity of heroin from Vietnam for a journalist friend played by Michael Moriarty. Things go south fast, with thugs hired by a rogue DEA agent in hot pursuit. So, Nolte grabs the heroin and Moriarty’s drug-addicted spouse (played by Tuesday Weld) and hits the road. The result is a surprising amount of well-staged and suspenseful action for a film this bleak in its look at human nature.

The direction by Reisz and performances by all parties, including Nolte, Moriarty, Weld, Anthony Zerbe, Ray Sharkey, and Richard Masur, are excellent. This is an extremely gritty and violent psychological thriller that would never be greenlit today by a Hollywood studio. Even back in the 1970s, the distribution branch of United Artists detested the film because the film’s main hero (Nolte) is a drug runner and virtually dumped the film, despite its acclaimed director, cast, literary pedigree, and it was one of the films selected to compete for that year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Fiestival. It’s sad this film never found its audience, because it packs a wallop, both viscerally and emotionally.  This is 1970s cinema at its best.