Throwback Thursday Reviews: Cape Fear (1991)

Upon its release in 1991, Cape Fear had the unique and odd distinction of being both Martin Scorsese’s most conventional picture and his most experimental. Here the master filmmaker was working in the mainstream world of crafting an audience pleasing thriller. Yet Scorsese was most known for titles that weren’t developed for mass consumption and were made with a more personal touch. Some of them turned out to be masterpieces – Mean Street, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas.

Cape Fear was a different animal. A remake of a 1962 B movie thriller that starred Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. This would allow Scorsese to pay homage to it and Hitchcock’s catalog while modernizing it. Robert De Niro stars as Max Cady, a recently released convict with plans to exact revenge on his defense attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who hid evidence that could have exonerated him. Unlike the 1962 predecessor, Sam’s family is not near picture perfect. Far from it. His wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is still scarred from her husband’s past infidelities. Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is their bored and sometimes rebellious teenage daughter. One of the things that makes the picture most interesting is that Max is not just going after Sam for vengeful purposes. He has designs to emotionally wound the family even more and he succeeds.

The film is filled with nods to genre pictures that Scorsese undoubtedly feasted on as a young man. Anyone who’s read about him knows he’s an encyclopedia of the trade he’s exceled in for nearly half a century. And Cape Fear‘s greatness is due to the infectious joy that we feel due to Scorsese’s joy in creating it.

Yes, it’s a mainstream thriller with all the conventions we’ve come to expect. A phone ringing unexpectedly during a tense moment. Cady disguising himself in a manner which I still recall had crowds understandably gasping in the theater. However, Cape Fear comes equipped with a brilliant director and first-rate actors participating. De Niro (Scorsese’s go to actor before DiCaprio) is often terrifying in the role of the Southern menace wreaking havoc on the Bowdens. The actor infuses his character with a demented religious fervor and a workout regiment that shows him in a way you’ve never seen him before or since. He received an Oscar nomination and deserved it.

Nolte’s work is worth lots of praise, too. He successfully strays away from making the character heroic and it’s a great twist to have the protagonist written and portrayed in that way. Lange is equally impressive as the frustrated wife and Lewis is a revelation as Danielle. The most famous sequence in the pic involves Max’s first encounter with her. It’s been noted that the scene is improvised and it isn’t your typical scary movie scene, but it might be the most chilling thing of all. For those who’ve yet to see it, I won’t spoil it. The subplot involving Sam’s law clerk (Ileanna Douglas) and her encounter with Max is unforgettable and horrific as well. Their pairing provides our first glimpse of what our main character is capable of.

In a nod to the ’62 original, its stars Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam all appear in welcome cameos. Joe Don Baker (one of the terrific characters actors of our time) provides some fine and often humorous moments as a P.I. trying to help Sam out.

As you’d expect in a Scorsese pic, the technical aspects from music to cinematography and so forth are impeccable. Cape Fear may not get mentioned in the same conversations as the director’s beloved group of classics. That’s OK, but it’s a remarkable viewing experience in its own right. And on this Throwback Thursday – it’s one you need to seek out if you haven’t watched it. Or watch it again for that matter to see one of cinema’s best directors put his delicious spin on a well-worn genre.

**** (out of four)

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