By Edwin Jahiel

CAPE FEAR. *** 3/4. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Wesley Strick. Based on a screenplay by James R. Webb and "The Executioners", a novel by John D. MacDonald. Cast: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Joe Don Baker, Robert Mitchum, Juliette Lewis, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam, Fred Dalton Thompson, Illeana Douglas. A Universal release. 123 min. Rated R (extreme violence, language).

CAPE FEAR is most unpleasant, savagely suspenseful and scary. It is often implausible. But it is extremely well made and fascinating.

Martin Scorsese has remade a 1962 thriller directed by J. Lee Thompson, that prolific, Bristol-born maker of British and American action movies, many of them forgettable, many of them with Charles Bronson.

Thompson's high-water marks are still THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) and CAPE FEAR (1962), both starring Gregory Peck. In the original CAPE FEAR, Peck plays Sam Bowden a Southern lawyer whose testimony had sent rapist Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) to jail for six years. Released, the convict begins to haunt and harass, physically and psychologically --but legally --Sam, his wife and their daughter.

Scorsese's version is close to the original but makes the situation even more intolerable as well as more complex. For one thing, the villainy is shared. Attorney Peck was a straight-arrow southern gentleman, close to his Oscar-winning Atticus Finch role in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, also of 1962 The new Sam Bowden is Nick Nolte, interestingly cast half in character (he is none too wholesome) and half against type (he is running scared). Nolte, as Max's lawyer some 14 years ago, had suppressed evidence which would have freed Max, even though the latter was guilty. (This twist is the movie's Achilles' heel, as it is unconvincingly and insufficiently explained).

In the new version Sam is subtly close to an affluent redneck "good citizen" counterpart of Sam. His happy little family has become a dislocated, joyless trio of a husband with a roving eye, a resentful wife (Jessica Lange) and an adolescent daughter at odds with her parents.

Last but not least is, of course, the casting of Robert De Niro , in his seventh film with Scorsese, as Max. De Niro does not have the gross sensuality of Mitchum, but he is a veritable Mad Max, a tattoed psycho as obsessed with revenge as the John Lithgow character in the current RICOCHET, a Georgia revivalist cracker, a fiend as mentally sick as -- not so curiously -- Mitchum was when he played the itinerant killer-preacher in the legendary THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

As opposed to Mitchum-Max's shorter term, De Niro-Max had 14 years in jail in which to seethe, to learn how to read and to teach himself the Bible as well as criminal law. Max, the devil incarnate, combines both into a horrendous instrument of revenge and, in his own , twisted mind, retribution also means the redemption of his prey.

CAPE FEAR does not always hold water, not in the near-impossible ways Max turns up, not even in the stormy, final, aquatic sequences where Max speaks in tongues. But much of our disbelief is distracted by the movie's performances and technical proficiency, the maelstrom of its rhythm, and the film-conscious way that brings in so much past cinema , and so well.

In the original movie, Max had assaulted a bar girl who, terrified of him, refused to press charges and left town . This character in the remake is a courthouse clerk with a crush on Nolte. Her meeting with Max is unexpected and unlikely, but you may discount this weakness because Illeana Douglas (about whom I could find nothing) does such a convincing job of her drunken-horny part.

Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum have small roles in the remake, partly as in-references that give the film a certain element of humor. Yet, on the whole, humor, black or otherwise, is not too apparent in this movie. Max is too terrifying to make you smile when he talks literature and speaks of "a roman a clef", especially as those words are addressed to Danielle, the 15-year old Bowden daughter (Juliette Lewis). He "seduces" (note the quotation marks) her in two successive sequences ( on the phone and in person) that must rate with the most chilling, most distasteful ever, as well as the best scripted, filmed and performed. (Juliette Lewis reminds me somewhat of Rita Tushingham in A TASTE OF HONEY, but she's also like nothing I have seen before.)

If everyone involved in this movie were to get his/her due, the list of compliments would be as long as the list of credits, both for the actors and the film-making team. The latter includes cinematographer Freddie Francis (Oscar for GLORY) who also specializes in directing horror movies, and who makes excellent use of this experience here; production designer Henry Bumstead (Oscars for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE STING); the great editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a Scorsese regular; the composer Elmer Bernstein who adapted Bernard Herrmann's haunting, persistent score from the earlier CAPE FEAR.

CAPE FEAR is Scorsese's first film in wide anamorphic screen (Panavision). The techniques are masterful. The screen is full (and sharp) from edge to edge, with images that keep charging at you as fast as the boxing sequences in RAGING BULL. The camera is one of the most nervous on record, pausing for ominously quiet stretches then resuming its agitation in expressionist style. There are scenes when there is almost one image per beat.

This process contains elements of earlier Scorseses, but with no feeling of deja vu. There are many more, obsessive closeups than Scorsese normally uses, and components that seem entirely new, like shots that dolly onto the characters as though they were going through them.

Other shots (like dollying in empty spaces) play with the subliminal memory of filmgoers, of Kubrick's THE SHINING, Truffaut's FAHRENHEIT 451, or Alfred Hitchcock's suspense devices, reinforced both by the music of Herrmann (Hitchcock's main composer) and by the casting.

There are, for example, PSYCHO-connected techniques here, and additionally, Martin Balsam , who was both in the original CAPE FEAR and in PSYCHO, turns up as in a cameo as a judge. To add more frosting of corruption to his cine-cake, Scorsese casts Joe Don Baker as a defrocked cop, now a private eye with no morals, a clear reference to the bad Baker who was the pitiless killer in CHARLEY VARRICK rather to the good Baker, Sheriff Buford Pusser.

One can read in CAPE FEAR some of Scorsese's usual concerns, like loneliness, guilt, and above all, the ultimate failure that so many of his characters face, much like those of another master, John Huston. But metaphysical values in this movie are a secondary concern. First and foremost, CAPE FEAR is a superbly done shocker. The question is: is it wickedly brilliant or brilliantly wicked?

[Published 22 Nov. 91]