1990s, 3/4, Martin Scorsese, Review, Thriller

Cape Fear (1991)

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#22 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.

It seems like most directors want to make a tribute to Hitchcock at some point in their careers. Zemeckis did it with What Lies Beneath, and even the original Cape Fear by J. Lee Thompson was an homage to the then living master. Scorsese comes along and take an homage to Hitchcock and makes another homage to Hitchcock, using color to directly invoke Vertigo in particular.

Ironically, I feel like the movie’s greatest strength and the source of most of its problems is the same: Robert de Niro. Scorsese had been working with de Niro since Mean Streets and had developed a strong sense of trust for the actor’s instincts, apparently letting de Niro find his Max Cady and run with it. De Niro’s work ends up making Cady both quietly terrifying in his best moments and cartoonishly extravagant in his worst. I think that by allowing de Niro to go so far, especially in the film’s third act, Scorsese undermined the type of tension and release he was trying to mimic. But, we’ll get to that in a moment.

Sam Bowden is a lawyer in North Carolina with a pretty wife, Leigh, who does graphic design, and a fifteen year old daughter in high school. They have a happy life together, but there are hurts lurking under the surface. Sam cheated on Leigh some years ago, forcing a move to North Carolina where they could start anew. The opening scenes, though, show none of the underlying tension of their marriage. Everyone seems happy in a functioning and prosperous system. Sam may be playing racquetball with a young woman from the office, but he hasn’t done anything untoward with her despite her obviously flirtatious attitude towards him. No, he’s learned his lesson and he’s going to keep an appropriate distance.

Into this comes Max Cady, fresh out of prison after fourteen years for the rape of a young woman. Sam had been his defense attorney and buried a report that could have saved Cady at least some time if not his entire sentence that showed the girl was promiscuous. I like how the movie reveals this early on, not trying to leave it as a piece of information for Cady to scream in the third act at some point. We know from the first act why Cady is after Sam, coloring his interactions with the rest of Sam’s family, especially Danielle, the daughter. Sam thought Cady was violent enough that he should bury the report to protect the other young women of the world, and now Cady is getting close not only to the man who wronged him, but his fifteen year old daughter as well.

Cady begins a campaign of near harassment that keeps him on the right side of the law but picks at Sam’s sense of calm. Cady sits on the wall that borders Sam’s back wall, but doesn’t go any further. He follows Sam around, paying for his meals, smoking cigars in theaters while laughing loudly, and just looking at Sam from his car (an echo of Travis Bickle, to a certain extent). There’s obviously enough malicious intent so that Sam can easily start the process for a restraining order, but the legal process is slow and Sam gets impatient, especially with Cady being able to sidestep every police intervention Sam can manufacture.

The most compelling moment in the whole film for de Niro is when he sneaks onto Danielle’s school, pretends to be her new drama teacher, and gets to meet her alone in the auditorium. This is a small moment of aggressive seduction on his part, playing up Danielle’s questions about the truth of her parents’ marriage based on what she knows about the affair, her generalized desire to rebel as a teenager, and her questioning of all sorts of norms to get in close. It becomes a violation due to his incredible level of manipulation. This is Cady at his absolute most terrifying, far more than when he becomes a cartoon villain in the final act.

In comes the private detective, Claude. He investigates, still finds nothing, but offers Sam more extra-judicial means including access to a gun and men who will beat a lesson into Cady with their fists, an offer Sam takes Claude up on. Cady, though, is almost an elemental force, so dedicated to his revenge that he can beat off three men with blunt weapons, taking a beating himself in the process. A beating that he uses to hire one of the best attorneys in the state to file a restraining order against Sam. With that, Sam takes his family to the titular Cape Fear.

Up to this point, the movie felt like it was really building to something interesting, but it kind of devolves into generic monster movie territory. Cady becomes almost as indestructible as The Terminator as he sneaks up on the family houseboat and demands, in Biblical terms and the voice of a Pentecostal preacher, that Sam pay for his sins. It’s so over the top, that I find it more ridiculous than terrifying. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s bad. It’s technically adept in a way that you would expect from someone as good at making films as Scorsese with solid model work on the boat and convincing use of sets, but it does seem like a letdown on the promise of the movie’s quieter menace from the first ninety minutes or so. Part of it was that the ending was obviously written this way, but another is de Niro’s performance that goes so far off the deep end of shouting and screaming, especially when you combine the burn makeup.

It’s an imperfect thriller that seems to end up giving into genre thrills to the max rather than focusing on a more effectively thrilling, but smaller, ending. This feels like Scorsese selling out, to a certain extent. He does it well, but Cape Fear is a well made and entertaining film more akin to Boxcar Bertha than the direction he had been taking ever since.

Rating: 3/4


8 thoughts on “Cape Fear (1991)”

  1. Pretty much agree with your comments, except the over the top nature of the De Niro character means the movie is a failure for me, I’d give it maybe 2 stars at most. When I saw it I compared it to the original and I found Mitchum more threatening and menacing than De Niro. De Niro is such a psychopath (your word cartoonish is good) he doesn’t really register as a realistic character, whereas Mitchum is just a brutal mean character that you can conceive of as existing somewhere. Plus Mitchum is just a more imposing physical presence than De Niro, he seemed rather slight.

    And there was that strapping himself to the bottom of the car thing, definitely over the top, and parodied in an episode of The Simpsons.

    I also have some faint memory of Scorcese making some condescending remarks about the original, which put me off of the remake before I’d even seen it.


    1. I haven’t seen the original in so very long. I kind of wish I had watched that first like I did with The Hustler and The Color of Money.

      I think that de Niro works as Cady in moments, especially gathered near the front of the film. That scene with Danielle in the school auditorium is kind of terrifying in a weird way. The performance is restrained for a while, but it’s towards the end when it just goes overboard. I mean, he works as a generic movie monster at that point, but it’s not the same kind of terror that had been building up. I don’t get that ending, though I do seem to remember something about Scorsese taking this up as a contract fulfillment job rather than something that he really wanted to do.


      1. I saw “Cape Fear” so long ago I think I only remember the parts I didn’t like, had forgotten the scene in the high school that you mention. I just read the Glenn Kenny book on ‘Goodfellas”, and “Cape Fear” is briefly mentioned, it is as you say – a contractual thing, not something he was passionate about the way he was with The Last Temptation of Christ or Silence (neither of which I’ve seen).


      2. He’s had three passion projects made, the third of which was Gangs of New York, but he didn’t need the movies to gestate in his mind for decades to come up with something great. It was about bringing his passion to the project, whether it was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or The Age of Innocence. Cape Fear just felt like a job he took. There seemed to be little to really engage him, which may have been part of why he let de Niro run so free.


  2. I think Mitchum did a better job, but I still enjoy DeNiro’s performance. I like it when DeNiro gives a shit and actually acts. The third act is very ‘Hollywood’ but…eh.

    Scorsese can be a catty bitch sometimes, but that just means he has opinions about movies. We all have those.

    I agree it does feel like they are still playing it safe in this movie. The stakes are never really raises to a fever pitch. Not that I really and truly want Cady to violate Danielle but it feels like THAT is something Scorsese would have to do to really top the original.


    1. The thumb in the mouth is really creepy, and pretty much a violation. It’s not what Cady does to Sam’s work friend, of course, but it’s just so uncomfortable to watch de Niro in his 40s doing that to young Juliette Lewis, doing so much to rob her of the last of her innocence without actually raping her. It’s just…so uncomfortable.


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