Cape Fear

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Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is an interesting film, maybe more so than it originally seems. I haven’t seen the original, but from what I’ve read this remake both updates and complicates the themes of the 1962 film. Either way, it’s an expertly crafted thriller with a lot to say about guilt and vengeance.

Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a lawyer with a wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), and a 15 year old daughter, Danny (Juliette Lewis). Their marriage is troubled by Sam’s frequent infidelities and their daughter’s acting out. When a former client of Sam’s is released from prison, things take a turn for the worse. Max Cady (Robert De Niro) has learned the law in prison, and believes he was inadequately defended by Sam. He intends to teach him a lesson about the law by tormenting his family. Cady starts small, stalking at a legal distance, but then this escalates to assault and murder.

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At the heart of Cape Fear is one of Scorsese’s most examined themes: guilt. Good and evil (which seems to be the conflict in the 1962 film) is warped into guilty and wronged. Though it’s clear that overall Cady is the more evil of the two, that doesn’t mean his claim of Sam’s guilt is illegitimate. Sam didn’t defend him as best he could, which is what the law demands and his profession promises. Even though Cady is a convicted rapist and all around creep, he’s morally right on this one point in the movie. Sam knows it, too; you can tell he’s guilty. His moral become more and more compromised as he tries to keep Cady away from his family. Through this, Cady proves his point. Just because Sam is a lawyer, not a criminal like him, does not make him a good man. It’s a strange paradox; the good man is full of guilt while the evil man is full of righteous anger.

On the technical side of things, the film is very impressive. The use of Bernard Herrmann’s original score (which is great, as usual) is interesting; it adds to the unease of the film because it shouldn’t be in 1991 film. The whole style collides with the time period and whether that was intentional or not, it works pretty well. There is a lot of quick editing in the scenes where they are locking up the house, adding a feeling or urgency that wouldn’t otherwise be conveyed so well. Even on a second viewing, I’m confused about the uses of the color flashes (which Scorsese would use again in The Age of Innocence) and the negative. I’m not quite sure what exactly they are supposed to convey, maybe a sort of x-ray vision showing us that Cady is present or just an altered state of consciousness, but either way they look pretty cool. The pacing is pretty good throughout, until we get to the end where the climax goes on for a bit too long.

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The performances are effective, even if it’s slightly off putting how over the top De Niro goes. He lays on the accent very thick, I’m talking Pacino in Scarface levels of accent here, and he’s screaming over half of the time. He is menacing so I suppose he gets the job done, but at some points you can’t help but roll your eyes at his histrionics. Juliette Lewis is the real standout here, conveying a sense of naivete and experience at the same time. She knows more and less than anyone else around her. Also worth noting are the cameos by the stars of the original film, Robert Mitchum as a possibly corrupt cop and Gregory Peck as Cady’s new laywer. Peck in particular is quite humorous in his role.

Cape Fear is a really good film. It’s not as heavy as some of Scorsese’s other films, but it’s still an interesting film that is very well made. The best way I can describe it is to compare it to Shutter Island. Like that film, Cape Fear is essentially an updated film noir exploring the guilt of the seemingly good main character. Cape Fear doesn’t have the twists and turns of Shutter Island and is more of a frightening escalation in a straight line, but in terms of quality they are pretty comparable.

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“Every man… every man has to go through hell to reach paradise.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Cinemaniac review
The New York Times review
Roger Ebert review

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9 responses to “Cape Fear

  1. The original is far better. Definitely one of Scorcese’s worst, if not for its appalling ending, and a forgettable screen appearance for De Niro as well!

    • Still haven’t seen the original unfortunately. I’ve been meaning to watch it for a while. I really liked Peck’s (re?)appearance in this movie.
      De Niro may not be particularly nuanced in this role, but far from forgettable in my view anyway. You can say what you want about his performance here, but you got to admit it’s greatly different from his other work with Scorsese.
      I suppose it is one of Scorsese’s worst, but that still doesn’t add up to a bad film (if you ask me, but I’m biased he’s my favorite). The only film from him that I actively dislike is Gangs of New York, but even on that one I need a rewatch.

      • Oh don’t get me wrong, De Niro is very charismatic in it- the cinema scene where he’s puffing away at a huge cohiba is hilarious, as his exit from prison where he declares to office handing him his books, “already read ’em”. The Bernard Hermann score too is amazing, I just think they could have done so much more with the ending as I’m sure you’ll agree.

        • Bernard Herrmann is always a treat, putting the original score in a more modern film has an interesting effect. It makes the whole thing all the more unsettling and I appreciated it.
          It took me a while to remember how the film ends, so that’s a strike against it right there. I seem to remember it going on a bit too long.

  2. Though I like the Scorsese film a lot, I do prefer the original. DeNiro seemed to be more like Reverend Sykes from Night of the Hunter in this as opposed to Cady in the original. Though the original is much slower, I found it infinitely more disturbing due to how Cady is portrayed. He is simply out to get revenge on Bowden by raping his daughter. Couple that with the daughter being much younger in the original (she’s only 13) the character really does make your skin crawl.

    • Reverend Powell from Night of the Hunter?
      I still need to see the original. It’s been on my watch list for a really long time but I haven’t caught up with it yet. Scorsese is my favorite director, so I bet I will still like this version more, but we’ll see how it plays when I finally do see it. I do really enjoy Mitchum in basically every role I’ve seen him in.

      • Shoot. You’re right. I could have sworn the character’s name was Sykes, but it has been a few years since I’ve seen Night of the Hunter. Scorsese is a much better director than J. Lee Thompson, so the remake of Cape Fear beats the original in many areas. Cady is the main reason I prefer the original, but only just.

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