CAPE FEAR (1991) // Elmer Bernstein

Interview with Composer Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein

"The wonderful thing that film music can always do is [to be] not totally explicit, to get behind and inside the characters so to speak," says Elmer Bernstein, composer for the Martin Scorsese remake of CAPE FEAR. "Curiously enough, I think that the score of CAPE FEAR does that – not in terms of the characters so much, but the overall feeling of the music to me feels inside the film, not on top of it."

Though "inside," the music does stand out from the film, as it did in the 1962 original. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, that picture's score reflected the black-and-white schematics of the story about an ex-con seeking revenge; shrieking violins matched the furor of Robert Mitchum in his attempts to brutalize Gregory Peck and his family.

Scorsese, who very often incorporates pre-existing music in his films, knew early in the shooting that his remake would retain the original score. While he did not shoot to playback (as he had with sequences of GOODFELLAS), Scorsese spoke on the set of how Herrmann's music for PSYCHO and other black-and-white classics seemed to color the air during the filming. "PSYCHO of course is fantastic," he said. "THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is very sad, beautiful. His music really got to me after VERTIGO and MARNIE. I think [that] was when I realized the sense of ruin, sadness, melancholy, fear and anxiety — and that was really terrific! " [Ironically, Herrmann's last film score, which he finished recording in Los Angeles the day he died, was for Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER.]

This is not the first time Herrmann's music has been adapted to other purposes; his score for an otherwise forgettable 1974 horror film, IT'S ALIVE, was posthumously used in a sequel, reorchestrated by Laurie Johnson. Scorsese's CAPE FEAR, however, really puts the Herrmann sound to good use, as it reinforces this remake's interpretation of Max Cady as a spiritual figure. Cady tries to teach his unenlightened prey a lesson about the true horrors of life; the music therefore emphasizes how easily Cady insinuates himself into the Bowden family, upsetting the very fragile relationships among parents and daughter.

Scorsese hesitated asking Bernstein to adapt the piece, fearing that the 69-year old Academy Award-winner [whose credits include THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD] would balk at the thought of reinventing another composer's work. Bernstein, however, jumped at the chance to work with Scorsese as a director, having scored the Scorsese-produced THE GRIFTERS.

Following his relatively sunny score for RAMBLING ROSE, Bernstein spent three weeks composing 49 cues, many shorter than a minute each, given the rapid pacing of the film. "This film has very little relationship to the first CAPE FEAR," Bernstein says. "The only reason the Herrmann thing worked is, in a curious way — don't ask me why – the score that Bennie wrote is much more appropriate for this film. I think he was the best creator on that [earlier] project, and he saw something in the film that wasn't there — but it's there now! "

In the more sensuous, foreboding atmosphere of Scorsese's remake, the music takes on an eerier tone. Herrmann's four-note theme, meant to represent Cady, is used sparingly to introduce images of the ex-con's psyche – for example, photos on his cell wall of a religious martyr, along with Nietzsche and Stalin. Otherwise, the score slowly intimates a sense of foreboding, matching Scorsese's tilted camera angles. Rising chords played on wind instruments instead descend, as if the weight of the Bowdens' situation is sucking them down into the mire, represented by swirling, nervous violins.

On the recording stage, a cavernous studio near Manhattan's Times Square, the chilling airs of vintage Herrmann manifest from the composer's typically unorthodox orchestral arrangement: Four flutes, eight horns, and about five dozen strings. On the screen above is projected the Bowdens' flight from the scene of Max Cady's latest atrocity. As French horns trumpet Cady lurking just out of view, trembling violins cascade over the listener like the deceptively calm waters of the Cape Fear River. Later, Bernstein conducts the cellos as they underline Sam Bowden's soul-searching chat with the private detective Kersek, who remarks on the South's long tradition of fear. The scene is short, sedate, quiet – the music, unnerving. By now the score seems to have grabbed a hold of the film and stuck to it, leaving the air freely susceptible to Bernstein's jokes.

For the picture's climax, Bernstein appropriated music from Herrmann's discarded score for Hitchcock's TORN CURTAIN, originally created (ironically) to accompany a desperate, prolonged attempt to kill a human being. "I felt by the time we get to the latter part of the film, it would be good to have some different color," Bernstein says, augmenting the orchestra with additional brass and timpani. The music for which Bernstein takes the most credit plays under the opening titles, designed by Saul and Elaine Bass; images of water turning blood red are matched with dissonant wind instruments, pierced by string and brass variations of Herrmann's Max Cady motif. This opening is more ominous than in the original CAPE FEAR, where the evil of Cady was presented in a more straightforward fashion.

This blissful dive into horror is crassly interrupted by a rudely boarish Thump! Thump! Thump! sound leeching through the recording studio's supposedly soundproofed walls, from a record label's promotion party being held three stories above – as invasive a presence as Cady himself. When word is passed down that the music cannot be halted until the resident pop artist's new release is played through, a good twenty minutes off, Bernstein explodes.

However his talents may match those of his mentor, though, Bernstein's temper is nowhere near that of the incendiary Herrmann, whose fiery anger and fierce pride were legendary. "He'd probably be horrified to know what we're doing!" laughs Bernstein of the New and Improved CAPE FEAR score. "I said to Scorsese, 'I think maybe this is all right with Herrmann, because if it weren't we'd probably both be dead by now!'"

Portions previously published in Empire Magazine (U.K.), 1992.

For Related Articles on CAPE FEAR by David Morgan:

  • "Return To Cape Fear" — On set production story (Los Angeles Times "Calendar," Feb. 1991)
  • Interview With Editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Millimeter)
  • Interview With Screenwriter Wesley Strick
  • Interview With Cinematographer Freddie Francis (American Cinematographer)
  • "Nowhere To Hide: A Lawyer Meets His Nemesis In CAPE FEAR" (American Bar Assn. Journal, 1992)

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