Exploring Soundtracks: Cape Fear


We’re back this week with another installment of Exploring Soundtracks. Recently, we’ve begun a new journey through the filmography of Martin Scorsese. Even though we’ve skipped a few of his earlier films, we may end up working our way back around in time.

Last week, we took a look at the soundtrack to Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film, “Goodfellas”. In that particular film, the soundtrack was mostly comprised of pop songs of the era, with no original score.

Today we’ll be looking at Scorsese’s next film after “Goodfellas”, the 1991 mystery/thriller “Cape Fear”. Unlike “Goodfellas”, “Cape Fear” boasts a full score, composed by¬†Bernard Herrmann, who also directed such films as “Vertigo”, “Psycho”, “Citizen Kane”, and the original 1962 “Cape Fear”.


“Cape Fear” follows the story of attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who knowingly withholds evidence that would acquit his client Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a violent sex offender, of rape charges, causing Cady to serve 14 years of prison time. Upon his release, relentless psycopath Cady is determined to hunt down the man who ruined his life, and deliver his own kind of vengeance.

Cape Fear

In a sense, the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” is a perfect companion to the genre of intense thrillers. To some, however, the trademark Bernard Herrmann horror score may sound a bit outdated. The opening credits are enough to make any viewer think that they’re about to sit through a classic Hitchcock film. That’s because, in a way they are.

The soundtrack used in this 1991 remake of the 1962 “Cape Fear” uses the same score that Bernard Herrmann wrote in the original. In the era when he originally made it, this was how horror films sounded. But that’s not the whole story.

Elmer Bernstein & Bernard Herrmann

While Herrmann’s original score was used in the “Cape Fear” remake, character changes that Martin Scorsese brought to the film required a more complicated approach.

While the original film played out as a battle between good and evil, Scorsese’s version deals more in the space between. Every character has their own demons, and no one is portrayed as a hero. For the task of redefining the sound cues to reflect this, Scorsese brought on Elmer Bernstein to adapt Herrmann’s score.

Even though this may sound like an easy task, Bernstein wasn’t paid to just copy and paste Herrmann’s score over the new film. He needed to examine each scene and sequence throughout the film, and decide whether or not the original score matched the same tone being conveyed on film. Some were kept in their original places, while other were moved to complement other scenes.

One example of this, is the placement of anxiety-inducing horror music being played in a scene while a parade marches through the streets. The interesting juxtaposition makes the horror all the more effective.

Some of the more gruesome and truly terrifying moments in “Cape Fear” come from the predictable, but nevertheless abrupt and ruthless, acts by De Niro’s Max Cady.

One scene in particular comes to mind. It’s the first visible act of violence we see Cady commit on screen, but we see it coming a mile a way as he sits in a bar chatting up a female friend of Bowden’s. When he finally strikes, and bites a chunk of flesh out of her cheek, the punching strings echo our feelings of horror and revulsion at seeing this act of violence play out.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Elmer Bernstein’s adapted work of Bernard Herrmann’s score doesn’t quite seem to fit in the modern context of Scorsese’s remake. It’s presence alone is enough to convince you that you’re watching a much older movie. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can make the suspension of disbelief required to take part in movie-going a bit harder to access.

Despite this, there’s no doubting that Herrmann’s score is effective. And the skill demonstrated by Bernstein in adapting it to Scorsese’s darker world view lets us look at the story with fresh eyes. I understand the desire to pay tribute to the original picture by using Herrmann’s score. But I can’t help wondering if modernizing some of the main motifs and thematic elements would have allowed us to hear “Cape Fear” in a new way as well.

That about finishes up our discussion for this week’s installment of Exploring Soundtracks. Next time, we’ll continue our journey through the films of Martin Scorsese by looking at the 1995 crime film, “Casino”.

Track List

  1. Max –¬†5:43
  2. Sam’s Story – 1:53
  3. Love? – 2:00
  4. Strip Search – 3:44
  5. Rape And Hospital – 3:58
  6. Frightened Sam – 2:20
  7. Cady Meets The Girls – 2:14
  8. Sam Hides – 2:27
  9. Drive – 1:17
  10. Teddy Bear Wired – 2:48
  11. Kersek Killed – 3:37
  12. Houseboat – 1:52
  13. The Fight – 1:59
  14. Destruction – 2:41
  15. The End – 5:36

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