When you think of your top Scorsese movies, you probably wouldn’t consider 1991’s Cape Fear. Unless you DO, and in that case more power to you… But I think some objective masterpieces like GoodFellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed and Taxi Driver would beg to differ. Those films do their fair share of overshadowing.
Don’t get me wrong; Cape Fear is a great movie. Awesome movie. Creepy movie. It evokes some strange emotions and doesn’t shy away from the gruesome, which is classic Scorsese and 2 hours in front of the screen well spent. Try and name one Scorsese film that isn’t directed, shot and created with utmost attention and dedication to the craft? Cape Fear is no different, but also manages to feel unique while pulling from so much outside influence. In other words, it’s great, but does not feel like a true Scorsese passion project.
So what’s a true Scorsese “passion project”? I’m not really one to say. You’d like to think that all films are passion projects to Marty, and they probably are (and have to be) in some capacity. But that aside, there are definitely certain genres and environments in which a Scorsese film feels like it’s reached the apex of cinema, specifically those that cover mob and organized crime stories. Cape Fear does not take place in that world, though it still explores similar themes like true evil, true humanity and true guilt that eventually leave you debating whether the hero of the story is even a true hero. That’s Scorsese.
Cape Fear is a stand out, gut wrenching thriller. A remake of the 1962 film of the same name, it follows a defense attorney named Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) whose past comes back to haunt him and his family. That past comes in the form of Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a dangerous and sinister prior client who was convicted for sexual battery and just finished his 14-year sentence. Now he’s looking to exact his revenge for what he believes was a poor defense from Bowden, and it was.
This marks what I believe to be De Niro’s 7th go-around working with Scorsese at the time, and he doesn’t disappoint. Cady had all the time in the world in prison, turning to educating and maturing himself mentally and physically. Serving time that he doesn’t feel is deserved, parlayed with living out the graphic truths of jail, formulates a passionate vendetta that will drive Cady to unthinkable acts.
Initially, it feels like Cady is using his newfound knowledge to play a game of cat and mouse with Bowden: showing up all around town, terrorizing his family, but making clever choices to ensure the law can’t touch him. It’s an evil and menacing pursuit. This unveils to the viewer experiencing a scenario where the antagonist believes whole-heartedly in his mission. Cady feels he was wronged by a “hero” that actually did do something wrong to justify his vendetta. This ultimately results in Bowden taking matters into his own hands, enlisting the help of private investigators and thugs to do his bidding in thwarting Cady. But Cady is resilient.
Adapted from book to screen and to screen again, this is a viewing you won’t soon forget, thanks in part to its exploration of both Cady and Bowden’s darker motives. From my understanding, Scorsese made a number offundamental changes to Cape Fear’s story to make the modern version more in line with his common themes. The 1962 Bowden was not the flawed character he is in Scorsese’s version. This newer Bowden is not quite a “bad” man, but also not quite a “good” man either. Bowden conflicts his marital relations with his infidelities, which in turn hurts his relationship with his daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis), to the point that she feels the need to defy her parents and becomes vulnerable to Cady’s influence. Though he is always acting in the name of protecting his family, sometimes Bowden’s inherent belief that what he is doing is always right causes him to overlook some serious pitfalls.
All of this makes for a surefire first two acts, building to the iconic showdown on the Bowden’s houseboat where they’ve gone to escape both Cady’s presence and law enforcement. Sadly, this third act feels somewhat rushed and jampacked to me, but here’s why that doesn’t surprise me. Scorsese is not a director that you would think would compromise to make someone else’s movie. But that’s what happened with Cape Fear. What was originally supposed to be a Spielberg film was given to Scorsese after he decided to not make Schindler’s List. And we all know what happened there.
With incredible acting across the board, Cape Fear garnered two Academy nominations for De Niro and (at the time) rising star Juliette Lewis. Jessica Lange is also very convincing in her part as Bowden’s wife, Leigh. Even today, it still feels special and one of a kind, but not authentically Scorsese. The script comes across as Brian De Palma’s area of expertise but Scorsese, being the mastermind he is, still delivers with his impressive cinematic tools and actor protégés.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
Cape Fear was a huge big budget studio film that enlisted the legendary cinematic power of Scorsese, and the results are still mostly solid. It was not originally a story Scorsese wanted to tell, but the industry happens, certain requirements are met and that’s how we got his take. Marty can’t help but try and layer the story in his in-depth examination of human motivation and belief from both sinister and genuine lenses. The result is a deeper allegory encased inside a classic, big studio setpiece of a third act.