Time: 128 minutes
Robert De Niro as Max Cady
Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden
Jessica Lange as Leigh Bowden
Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden
Joe Don Baker as Claude Kersek
Robert Mitchum as Lt. Elgart
Gregory Peck as Lee Heller
Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is a psychopath just released from prison for rape. He is out seeking revenge from his lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who he believes deliberately held back important information about his case during the trial, which could have kept him out of jail. He sets off to terrorize Bowden, his wife (Jessica Lange) and even goes after their 15 year old daughter (Juliette Lewis).
After his massive hit with Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s next film would be a remake of the 1961 thriller Cape Fear, which would be the most commercial movie from him at least at the time. While it’s indeed another thriller, he does a number of things to make it more entertaining, engaging, interesting, and ultimately better.
With Cape Fear, I think it’s worth not knowing too much before going in. It is a bit of a slow burn thriller, as antagonist Max Cady terrorizes the main family in different ways, but it’s consistently engaging all the way through. One thing that you should know is that Cape Fear isn’t a brutally realistic thriller. There are some aspects that are over the top, and Max Cady seeming supernatural in some of the things he does. While Scorsese’s movie is much more overtly intense than the original, make no mistake, this is still a genre movie, and Scorsese absolutely embraces that to great effect. At the same time, he does take the movie in other directions, especially with regard to the family dynamic, which made Cape Fear more than just another stalker thriller. The tension builds up over the course of the movie, and culminates in a very thrilling last act.
Robert Mitchum left quite the impression in the original movie as Max Cady, he basically made that movie worth remembering. However, Robert De Niro is also fantastic as Cady in the remake. He’s a little more over the top and larger than life, but nonetheless is still probably the scariest performance that he’s given. He’s quite overtly monstrous, yet adds enough humanity to the role. Some have said that De Niro can have performances that are similar to each other, but performances like The King of Comedy and this are examples of him absolutely transforming into completely different roles. That creepy southern accent of his also helped quite a lot. In the original Cape Fear, the family was rather typical and clean, whereas in the 1991 version, the lead family in here is shown to have a lot more going on with them. Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis are all great as that family. I’ve noticed that Nolte’s performance as Sam Bowden is rather overlooked, Gregory Peck as Bowden in the original movie was way too clean and honourable throughout. Nolte on top of portraying the character with great paranoia and stress effectively, is also shown to be rather flawed himself as a person before even coming across Max Cady again. The rest of the supporting cast work well too, with the likes of Illeana Douglas, Joe Don Baker, and a few cameos from actors of the original Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam. Scorsese doesn’t let any of the characters here come across as a hero and make them all feel human, even Cady.
Martin Scorsese’s work is once again great, and his direction ultimately made the movie even better. It’s a very stylish thriller, there are some over the top elements like the zoom ins and certain editing techniques, but that’s deliberately inspired from suspenseful filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. In fact a lot of people have described Cape Fear as Scorsese doing De Palma. Much of the way the third act was directed was pretty great. The score is good too, Scorsese kept much of the score from the original movie and it works here.
Cape Fear isn’t among Martin Scorsese’s best movies, but that’s honestly not too much of a problem, it worked very well for what it was, and he made it even better than it could’ve been. Scorsese directs this excellently and elevated the material greatly, and the performances are really good, especially from De Niro and Nolte. So I definitely think it’s worth watching.