Cape Fear
(1991)











Rated: R
Runtime: 2 Hours and 8 Minutes


Reviewer: Dale
Grade: A

Yes, I have gone Scorsese crazy. It can't be helped, really. He rules. He's one of the finest directors ever to come down the pike. For years I heard about him, heard his name mentioned over and over and over again, but I never understood what made him so great. Then I saw "Taxi Driver" and I thought "oh, so THAT's what they're talking about". Then I saw "The Last Temptation of Christ" (great, but not as great as Jones makes it sound...sorry, Jones) and I realized that he's pretty good. I loved "Bringing Out the Dead". I thought "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull" were just about as good as movies get. I liked "Casino" a lot. And "The Age of Innocence" is surprisingly excellent.

The first film of his that I saw, however, was "Cape Fear". So I decided to revisit the other day, seeing as how I am a maniac and all. (At least I am man enough to admit it.) And it holds up amazingly well. Is it "Goodfellas"? No. Is it "Taxi Driver"? Nope. "Raging Bull"? Uh uh. But it is a great, creepy piece of work that might make you look under the car before you go somewhere. Watch the movie, that will be explained. It will make you look over your shoulder a little more than before. And it will make you even more suspicious of men with tattoos.

I have never seen the original, so I cannot compare and contrast the two movies. I know that the villain in the piece was originally played by Robert Mitchum, so I hesitate to say that De Niro makes his Max Cady one of the most menacing villains in screen history. I hesitate because, after all, Robert Mitchum played one of the two or three other great villains in cinema history when he played the insane and morally depraved (not to mention chilling and vicious and hypocritical and all-around evil) preacher in "Night of the Hunter". Mitchum is unsettling as all hell in that movie. But De Niro will give you a few chills here as well. Damn, he's spooky. Not so much in the fact that he is bent for revenge and single-minded. It's his determination, his commitment to his task, and the way he appears sane to all those around him that makes him such a chilling presence. Much of the time he looks a lot more sensible and sane than the story's protagonist (Nick Nolte).

You see, Max Cady has spent fourteen years in prison for raping and severely beating a young woman. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) was his lawyer. When Max learns that Sam buried evidence of the young woman's promiscuity, he is understandably pissed. And he is out for nothing less than revenge. De Niro has a way around a threat that buries it deeply within your psyche. He gets under Nolte's skin and, pretty much, makes Nolte's own concerns and worries and neuroses a lot scarier than what Max actually does. Nolte's paranoia is his biggest adversary, something which makes it hard for the cops to believe Sam's side when Max actually does begin to tighten the screws.

The film is so good that it could be a textbook study in the establishment of suspense. Scorsese has always been a master of visual composition, and this film is no exception. There are several images that will haunt you forever after seeing the film (they've stuck in my head for quite some time) though I really can't disclose many of them without ruining some of the film's most elegant surprises and shocks. There are many deliciously sinister moments in this film. Enough that you may find yourself slowly curling into the fetal position on your couch as you watch the film unfold. The film builds suspense like an architect building a house: brick by brick, first innocently, then gradually bigger and bigger until it's almost intolerable. The violence in this film, unlike most films like this, has a genuine impact and rattles the viewer. We dread the violence, rather than rooting for the next death like in a "Scream" movie. Nolte is great as the protagonist who, sometimes, does worse things than the villain. He cheats on his wife, he worries, he busts his daughter for smoking pot when he has worse than that in his own past, and he has, after all, taken a holier than thou stance that has robbed a man of fourteen years of his life. We see why he did it (few of us, I think, would want a man like Cady running around outside a set of bars) but it's still a shitty thing to do and it gives the villain something that most movies don't bother to establish: a reasonable motive.

Nolte is good, as always, and De Niro is a sinister force to be reckoned with, but the ladies in the picture are also quite effective. Jessica Lange is great as Cady's worried and ballsy wife, a woman trapped in a marriage she isn't quite happy with who now has a new and more tangible reason to hate her husband. And Juliette Lewis is great as their messed up teenage daughter: alternately sweet, seductive, strong-willed, shy and a little creepy herself. You never understand until the end where her loyalties lie, and this adds another dimension of suspense and discomfort to the goings on. This is creepy stuff.

Scorsese directs this film (his first straight out thriller, I believe) with such skill and finesse and flourishes that one is reminded of Hitchcock in his prime. I know that is a bold statement: Scorsese earns it. Also great is the resuscitation of Bernard Herrman's amazing score from the original film. They could never have written better music. Scorsese and Elmer Bernstein both knew it. So they wisely chose to go with the work of a master. And, Man, does it pay off. It just reminds you of what film music has been reduced to. Herrman was a genius with a musical score and "Cape Fear" is a stunning, haunting example of what the man could do in his prime. (Note: Scorsese did, after all, work with the man himself on "Taxi Driver", another thing that adds resonance and makes it seem less unseemly to recycle a man's work.)
Bernstein does a magnificent job of recreating it. I also liked the way that Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (the antagonist and protagonist of the original film) made their way back for small roles in this one. Both men have still got it and it's a pleasure just to see them working again. It's a pity that neither of them work anymore, though I'm sure Mitchum's being dead has more than a little something to do with that. I also liked that Peck's courtroom suit looks nearly identical to his duds in the courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird". Nice touch that was not lost on me.

Sure, the movie does go a little off the rails near the end (but by that point so has De Niro's character, so it's forgiven) but it still packs a rollicking punch. And the sight of De Niro trying to seduce Nolte's daughter or speaking in tongues or...well, any number of unsettling sights, might never fully leave you. It's been a long time since a film oozed this much menace. And few characters have been as sheer menacing as Max Cady. Truly a man that I would not want to meet in a dark alley.

Not even with a lead pipe or a bicycle chain.