Why Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is among the finest thrillers of the 1990s

Boldly directed and featuring a great turn from Robert De Niro, Cape Fear is among Martin Scorsese’s best films, reckons Ryan. And here's why...

Following the critical acclaim earned by such wilfully individual movies as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s decision to direct a remake of an old 60s thriller was a surprising one. And yet, Scorsese’s foray into the mainstream proved to be a wise move, providing the director with yet more praise and a proper box-office hit.

In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see what Scorsese saw in the film’s apparently simple premise, adapted from John MacDonald’s 1957 novel, The Executioners. The 1962 Cape Fear, directed by J Lee Thompson and featuring the chiselled jaws of Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in its lead roles, was a tale of good versus evil: maniac convict Max Cady (Mitchum) gets out of jail and begins terrorising the family of lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) who he believes was responsible for his time in prison.

In the script written by Wesley Strick for Scorsese’s 1991 version, Bowden is a less straightforwardly wholesome protagonist. Here, Bowden, convinced of Cady’s guilt of violent assault, suppresses a vital piece of evidence that may have kept his defendant out of prison. Fourteen years later, Cady emerges from his cage, embittered, sinewy, self-educated, and hungry for revenge.

The themes of corruption and guilt clearly struck a chord with Scorsese, whose films have long been populated by violent criminals and conflicted outsiders. The angry, angst-ridden script also gave plenty for Cape Fear’s leads to get their teeth into, and Robert De Niro’s wild, ranting performance as Max Cady is among his finest, if not his most nuanced – his tattoos, snake-eyed stare and biblical rants dominate the film, and were memorably parodied in a classic episode of The Simpsons.

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De Niro’s performance is so showy and aggressive that it’s easy to overlook just how strong the other players are. As Sam Bowden, Nick Nolte may be on career-best form here. Certainly, he’s an unusual choice to play a clean-cut lawyer, but even as the film begins, when his suits are still pressed and his parting’s still straight, there’s an air of guilt and desperation about him. His home life is already teetering on the brink of collapse, with his graphic designer wife, Leigh (a brilliant Jessica Lange) sullen and dissatisfied, while their constant quarrelling alienates their teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis, in a breakthrough role).

When Cady gets out of jail, spouting his righteous fury, he’s merely a catalyst for a family already in genteel crisis. For the first hour, his ubiquitous presence – obnoxiously laughing and smoking a cigar during a cinema screening of Problem Child, sitting on Bowden’s garden wall, or loitering in the street in his gleaming red car – Cady merely exposes and intensifies the flaws in Bowden’s comfortable existence. Both his wife and daughter seem strangely attracted to this mysterious man from Bowden’s past, at least until Cady’s menace tumbles over into physical confrontation.

Bit by bit, Cady’s vengeance strikes closer to Bowden’s home, leading up to the film’s most controversial sequence – his violent, graphic assault on Bowden’s colleague and possible secret love interest, Lori (Illeana Douglas). Even 20 years later, it’s a shocking moment, and one that was strongly criticised for its possible misogyny by some writers at the time of release. In later interviews, Scorsese and writer Wesley Strick both defended the scene’s violence, arguing that, if it wasn’t so extreme, Cady’s later encounter with Danielle wouldn’t have been so charged with menace.

The scene is all the more shocking due to the tone of Scorsese’s direction up to this point. Right from the opening credits, which feature some sterling work from designer Saul Bass and Elmer Bernstein’s fearsome reworking of Bernard Herrmann’s 1962 score, Scorsese’s Cape Fear feels like a Hollywood thriller of the 50s and 60s. Freddie Francis’ cinematography is extraordinarily stylised for a mainstream genre film – just look at the moment when Cady emerges from prison with black clouds rolling overhead, and marches right up to the camera – while Scorsese seems intent on reminding us that what we’re seeing is all artifice. When Cady sits on the Bowdens’ boundary wall in one early scene, Scorsese paints the background with an array of garish fireworks.

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Scorsese makes numerous, playful and quite plain references to the original Cape Fear, not least in its cameos from Mitchum, Peck and Martin Balsam, but also to Hitchcock movies and another Mitchum thriller, Night Of The Hunter.

The result, then, is that the viewer undergoes an invasive experience not unlike Sam Bowden’s. We’re presented with the comfy, familiar mounting of a classic black-and-white thriller – all Brylcreemed hair and smart suits – but then the terrible violence and palpable air of sexual menace (a controversial element in the 1962 film made even more overt here) comes crashing through.

Cape Fear reaches the peak of its suspense shortly after Cady’s verbal seduction of Danielle at her school (a deeply disquieting sequence that was partly improvised by De Niro and Lewis). At the suggestion of seedy private investigator Claude (Joe Don Baker), Bowden hires three men to viciously beat Cady in an attempt to scare him off. The attack goes wrong, resulting in three battered thugs and an enraged nocturnal sermon from Cady.

The film’s tension begins to seep away thereafter. An attempt to lure Cady into the Bowden home, where they can shoot him without legal reprisal, leads to a blackly comic scene in which Claude is garrotted by Cady, who’s snuck into the house dressed as their maid. The sequence is a perplexing one. It’s not clear why Cady thought it necessary to break into the Bowden house while dressed as a woman, or why Scorsese has Sam slip over in the blood spilled all over the kitchen floor after the attack. Presumably, this is another of Scorsese’s attempts to unsettle his audience?

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Cape Fear concludes with a protracted struggle aboard the fleeing Bowdens’ houseboat. As a storm rages and rain lashes the vessel, the film descends into an overlong dervish of shouting and bloodshed. This final encounter lacks the conviction of the rest of the film, as though Scorsese feels duty-bound to wrap the story up with a familiar thriller conclusion (the houseboat sequence is lifted directly from the 1962 film, though its content is much more violent).

Interestingly, Scorsese denies both Sam Bowden and his audience the satisfaction of a bloody, macho pay-off: as Sam prepares to deliver a killing blow with a huge rock held aloft, the raging waters of Cape Fear drag Cady into the depths, leaving him to drown in a babble of religious ecstasy.

Scorsese’s retelling of Cape Fear is perplexing and at times remarkable. The early scenes of suspense are more interesting than the concluding scenes of violence, which are almost comically shrill. Its cleverest device, though, is in the way it opens and concludes with Danielle’s direct-to-camera monologue.

Framed like this, Cape Fear isn’t about the battle of wits between a lawyer and convict, but about a young girl growing into adulthood in the most unpleasant circumstances – about a comfortable, middle-class Eden shattered by violence and betrayal.

This complexity is all thanks to Scorsese, and his refusal to tell a simple story in a complete rote manner. What could have been a generic Hollywood thriller is, instead, something far more compelling, and often disturbing. Where a lesser director would have relied solely on gore, Scorsese’s ability to juxtapose the familiar with the unexpected makes for a far more chilling, memorable film – and this is why Cape Fear is among the very best suspense films of the 1990s.

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