Cape Fear (1991) *** ½
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Wesley Strick based on the screenplay by James R. Webb and novel by John D. MacDonald.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Robert Mitchum (Lieutenant Elgart), Gregory Peck (Lee Heller), Martin Balsam (Judge), Illeana Douglas (Lori Davis), Fred Dalton Thompson (Tom Broadbent).
Sometimes, it’s got to be tough to be “Martin Scorsese”, as everyone expects every movie you make to be a masterpiece. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. When I first watched Cape Fear, around 12 or 13 years ago, I went in thinking that this Scorsese/DeNiro collaboration would be as good as their others (I had yet to see New York, New York at this point, but had seen the rest) and was disappointed by the film. I knew that it was a “good” film, but because it was a Scorsese film, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a masterpiece. Watching the film again, what struck me was not only was the film good, it was in fact very good – and contains in it scenes of true greatness. It is not the masterpiece of a Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy or GoodFellas, sure, but it in an uncommonly intelligent, intense thriller with great performances. For once in his career, Scorsese decided to make a pure genre film, and although he twists the structure a little in order for his own hidden agendas and themes to be put in play, that is exactly what he did. Cape Fear is not a masterpiece, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a fine thriller.
The story of Cape Fear is well known to anyone who either read the best selling book or saw the original 1962 movie with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Max Cady (DeNiro, in the Mitchum role) is an ex-con released after 14 years in jail for a brutal rape of a 16 year old girl. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte, stepping in for Peck) was Cady’s lawyer, who he holds personally responsible for his prison term, and is now hell bent on revenge. Cady stays just on the right side of the law, harassing Bowden and his family without breaking any laws that they can prove. Bowden gets increasingly angry at this turn of events, and tries to turn the tables on Cady, but is much more obvious about it himself. According to the law, it is Bowden, not Cady, who is in the wrong. Growing increasingly fearful, the family flees to their houseboat on Cape Fear, but unbeknownst to them Cady follows them there and on a dark and stormy night attacks.
The novel and both film versions follow this same basic set-up. It is a classic thriller movie, where you have the innocent man being hounded by a psychopath who he is powerless to stop. The genre requires several showdowns and suspenseful moments before getting to the big finale, which pits the two opposing forces next to each other. All of this Scorsese handles with skill and style. The cinematography by Freddie Francis is wonderful, and the great Elmer Bernstein does a wonderful job adapted the even greater Bernard Herman’s magnificent original score. The technical elements of the film are never less than brilliant.
And yet it’s what Scorsese, along with screenwriter Wesley Strick, do to the story and the characters which makes Cape Fear a superb example of its genre. The original film, and novel for that matter, was about a collision between good and evil, guilt and innocence. Sam Bowden is presented as a picture perfect man, a wonderful husband and father, and a lawyer beyond reproach. It’s just his bad luck that a psychopath like Max Cady sets his sights on him and refuses to let go.
Scorsese changes that for the remake. Bowden is not as innocent as he appears to be. He admits that all those years ago he buried a report that the victim was “promiscuous”, which while it may not have gotten Cady off, could have at least lightened his sentence. Bowden let his personal disgust with his client get in the way of doing his constitutional duty. He justified it by saying that Cady was a terrible man who deserved to go to jail, and besides, Cady would never find out anyway – Bowden had to read all the reports to him. Cady, raised by a strict Pentecostal family, had to go to jail before he learned to read and write. He then spends 14 years investigating his own case, as well as the law. When he gets out, he knows precisely what to do to Bowden – and precisely what Bowden did to him.
But Scorsese doesn’t stop there. Bowden has a history of infidelities that nearly tore his family apart, and predicated their movie from Atlanta to the small town of New Essex. When the infidelities came to light, his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) fell into a deep depression, where he cried for months on end and refused to come out of the bedroom. Now in New Essex, Bowden is starting down a similar path, having a relationship with Lori (Illena Douglas), which although has not become sexual yet, is heading that way. Their teenage daughter Danny (Juliette Lewis) has had problems of her own, getting busted for having pot at school, and now has to go to summer school. While the Bowden’s play the perfect family, there is discord running beneath the surface. Discord that Cady exploits at every turn. First he brutally attacks Lori, who refuses to press charges because she doesn’t want to be humiliated, but reveals to Leigh just what her husband has been doing. And in perhaps the movies best scene, Cady shows up at Danny’s school and has an intimate conversation with her. He is all charm and smiles as he subtlety seduces her by pretending to under what she’s going through in a way that her parents never could. The scene is the creepiest in the movie because we understand just what Cady is doing, although Danny does not. It is perfectly played by DeNiro and Lewis, and is probably the reason why both received Oscar nominations for their work in the film.
But then again, all the performances in the movie are great. True even if I think DeNiro is the greatest screen actor in history, he does not quite have the authoritative screen presence that Robert Mitchum had. But then again, I don’t think any actor has quite the same screen presence as Mitchum (even in a small part in this film, you cannot take your eyes off that man, even when he’s sitting there doing nothing). But DeNiro does a great job as Cady. Yes, he goes over the top with his accent a little, and at times he seems to be more like the bad guys in a slasher movie than a human being, but DeNiro’s performance is marvelously creepy and scary. He plays Cady not unlike the shark in Jaws – you cannot stop him from coming at you again and again and again. His quoting scripture is just the icing on the cake for his great screen villain. When he finally completely lets loose on the houseboat, he is as scary as any villain in movie history, and yet DeNiro does not play him as a one note bad guy. He is full of rage at what happened to him in jail, and you can feel it in his every line reading. Nolte hits all the right notes as Bowden as well. Trying in vain to keep his sanity, and get Cady to leave him alone, Nolte gradually becomes paranoid and a little unhinged. It’s hard playing the “perfect guy” role when you’re not perfect. Jessica Lange takes a role that if often relegated to the background – that of the “wife” and makes a real person out of it. This is no longer a story of just these two men, but she adds a real woman to the mix. Even better is Lewis, who plays the precious, Danny, with a mixture of innocent naiveté and sexual curiosity. It stands as a reminder of how good an actress she can be when given the right role. In smaller roles, Mitchum as the chief of police and Joe Don Baker and Private Eye are both great. And Gregory Peck has a marvelous cameo as a hypocritical, bible thumping lawyer that Cady hires (“God himself could not have adjudicated any more wisely, your honor”).
Had someone other than Martin Scorsese had of directed Cape Fear, then I think it would probably be more highly praised then it has been. For most directors, a thriller of this much skill and style would be a triumph for them of the highest order. But because it was directed by Martin Scorsese, the man who brought us Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and just the year before GoodFellas, it is still viewed as a disappointment. It’s time to set the record straight. While its genre roots, particularly the clichéd ending (although I appreciate that Scorsese resists the urge to give into the audiences collective bloodlust by taking away Bowden’s final blow – after all Bowden isn’t really a “hero” in this film), keep it from being a truly great movie it is a thriller of the highest order.