Cape Fear (1991)
Written by Wesley Strick
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Cape Fear came to Martin Scorsese on a trade. Scorsese had been working on Schindler’s List after Steven Spielberg had walked away at first. Spielberg was offered Cape Fear but found the story too violent for his personal filmmaking style. In turn, he offered it to Scorsese, who realized he wasn’t the right fit for Schindler’s List. The result of this switch is that we got a gorgeous remake of the 1961 Cape Fear that leans heavily into the filmmaking territory of Alfred Hitchcock.
Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a North Carolina lawyer, married to Leigh (Jessica Lange) with a teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). His life is good until Max Cady (Robert De Niro) reenters it. Cady has just been released from a fourteen-year stint in prison for a sixteen-year-old girl’s rape and battery. While defending Cady in Atlanta for that case, Sam discovered a history of promiscuity of the victim but suppressed the evidence, secretly wanting his client convicted. Cady went into prison illiterate, but in that time, he’s improved his intellect and has figured out what his lawyer did to him.
Now Cady is menacing Sam within the boundaries of the law, always antagonizing just enough to remain out of the reach of the authorities. It doesn’t help that Sam’s personal life is cracking as Leigh carries a constant suspicion Sam is cheating on her, repeating his mistakes of the past. The truth is, Sam is cheating on Leigh, or at least flirting heavily with court clerk Lori (Illeana Douglas), which is something Cady figures out early on. Danielle is attending summer school due to being caught with marijuana while on the grounds. The chaos without and within pushes Sam to seek out the help of Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker), a private detective with unscrupulous methods.
Cape Fear was Martin Scorsese’s most successful studio film to date. He takes full advantage of a budget that provides him with special effects and doesn’t worry about the apparent artifice these cause. Instead, he has made a full bore Hitchcock style picture bringing back Bernard Hermann, whom Scorsese worked with on Taxi Driver. He also has Saul Bass (Vertigo, North by Northwest) to do the title sequence. Cape Fear is a deeply impressionistic movie, the storm gathering in the sky constantly as a metaphor for what is happening in Sam’s life. It ultimately explodes into a full bore torrent in the final sequence on the houseboat.
I think this film also confirms that De Niro is better suited to play dark & villainous roles. From Mean Streets to Taxi Driver to Raging Bull, he does his best work when he plays violent and mentally disturbed characters. Even an early part like in The Deer Hunter isn’t very memorable with him playing “the good guy.” That film is fine, but De Niro is not remarkable in it. De Niro has picked more leading man roles that are more traditional in the last twenty years. Things like Dirty Grandpa, The Meet the Parents franchise, or when he’s cast as a cop just don’t play to his strengths. I think The Irishman was the best thing De Niro has done since the 1990s.
In Cape Fear, he plays a different type of antagonist, more dangerously charming, while still expressing male violence. It’s easy to see how someone might be seduced by Cady at first. He has a way with words and appears completely easygoing. Yet, he’s able to convey an intensity that can be frightening but alluring. His conversation with Danielle in the auditorium is a perfect example of that. Cady expresses a great depth of intellect but in a way that connects with the problems Danielle is experiencing at home.
There is an underlying theme of corruption in Cape Fear, particularly from the characters on the “good” side. Sam has taken an oath to defend his clients to the best of his ability, and, despite Cady’s obvious menace, he should have put forth the best defense possible. He did not, and so his client was punished. Sam has also taken an oath to his wife and appears to have broken it on multiple occasions. When he employs Kersek, things get even worse as Sam completely abandons any pretense of the law. He pays for men to attempt and rough up Cady, which doesn’t go well and results in Sam potentially being disbarred. Cady is tattooed in scripture and pronounces himself as coming to Sam to break the man, balancing invisible scales of moral justice. Nothing Scorsese does here necessarily showcases new facets of his filmmaking, but he does manage to make a wide release audience picture that presents the viewer with big philosophical ideas to ponder.