The 1962 version stars Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and it's masterfully subtle. Mitchum is terrifying. Absolutely chilling. All the more so because the sexual side of his villainy is mostly non-explicit - you see the battered victim of one of his crimes, but other than that, it's conveyed entirely through dialogue, and man, it makes your skin crawl. Mitchum, incidentally, appears in the 1991 version as well as a police lieutenant - a nice touch, though it's a bit strange to see him looking so harmless. But despite his creepier than hell character, his rage is poignant - although no one would say he didn't deserve it, you do kind of sympathize with him. Jail is no fun at all. So he's a really fascinating character, very well done. The film is interesting, too, in that it moves at the pace of molasses. Not in a slowly-building-suspense kind of way, it's just slow. I was scared, but not so scared that I didn't doze off for a minute towards the end. In my defense, it was hot and stuffy in the theatre. Anyhow, in the original, Peck is, for the most part, a paragon of virtue. The drama in the film centers around the fact that he has no legal recourse to protect himself from a man who's clearly out to get him (because he testified against him), and, after trying a few shadier routes, is forced to use his family as bait to lure him into attacking them, so he can kill him. The anxiety, in other words, is that there are bad bad people out there, and the law can't always save you from them. In other words, it's attacking people's sense of security, their faith in a system that it meant to protect them.
The 1991 version is a bit more complicated, morally. Here, Nick Nolte plays a Robert DeNiro's former defense attourney. Nolte, knowing that DeNiro was guilty of the brutal rape of a 16 year old, withheld evidence - of the victim's promiscuity - that could have helped his client in court and possibly reduced his sentence. In other words, Nolte was clearly in the wrong - the film repeatedly reminds us that a person is entitled to the best defense their lawyer can give them. Furthermore, Nolte is a total jerk, who almost immediately turns to shadier tactics to rid himself of DeNiro's lurking presence. He files a restraining order at first, it's true - but really, does anyone feel safe with a restraining order these days? Anyhow, so the strange thing about the movie is that in a strange way, you're somewhat compelled to sympathize with DeNiro's character. To compensate for this however, the movie makes him more explicitly brutal. I bet legions of viewers had nightmares for months after portions of that movie. I don't know if it's intentional or part of my bleeding-heart liberal perspective, but the fact that a lot of the reasons that DeNiro seems so repellent is because he's covered in tattoos and speaks with a thick redneck bible-quoting twang actually makes me sympathize with him MORE, but in an intellectual, not emotional way. Which is interesting. The problem with the movie is the end, which has an everything-but-the-kitchen sink feel to it, and goes on WAY too long. I'm gonna go ahead and say that you're only allowed two oh snap he's not actually deads! per character per movie. There were at least 4 in this one. At one point, you actually think that the final battle will be two men bludgeoning each other to death with rocks. It's preposterous.
But what's really fascinating about the remake is that the real terror of the movie, I think, isn't DeNiro at all - it's Juliette Lewis, who plays the daughter. A disclaimer, I'm currently reading Judith Levine's riveting book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, so probably I'm particularly attuned to this aspect, but seriously, the major sub-plot of this movie is the terror of out-of-control adolescents, and especially adolescent sexuality. While most parents could write off DeNiro's character as a rarity unlikely to strike in their neighborhood, I'll bet the image of Juliette Lewis sucking DeNiro's thumb would haunt them for months. In fact, the film is book-ended by a voice-over from Lewis, which essentially casts the whole story as a parable of childhood innocence lost. And as Levine will tell you, in the early 90s, wasn't much scarier than that. But what's fascinating about it is that Lewis' sexual development, and experimentation with drugs, is in no way caused by the events of the film - DeNiro just happens to be in the right place at the right time, if you will. In fact, what the movie clearly shows is how futile it is to attempt to lock your children up in hopes of protecting them - their "corruption" is inevitable. And that, it seems to me, is the real terror lurking at the heart of the movie.