Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (1991)

For just over twenty years, director Martin Scorsese had consistently achieved something rather remarkable for an artist in his field— the development and realization of original ideas and passion projects.  Outside of BOXCAR BERTHA (1972) and maybe ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974), the bulk of Scorsese’s output up until 1990 had stemmed from original visions or properties he was passionate about.  The runaway success of 1990’s GOODFELLAS—still regarded today as perhaps his finest film—gave him the opportunity to continue making the movies he wanted to make, but there was just one little snag.  In order to get his longtime passion project THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST financed in 1988, Scorsese had agreed to direct an additional, more-commercial film for Universal Pictures at some point in the future.  When they saw GOODFELLAS’ success, Universal decided it was time to collect.

The film that arose from this agreement (one could call it a deal with the devil) was 1991’s CAPE FEAR, a remake of the 1962 classic film of the same name starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.  The new version had been in development for quite some time, with a script written by Wesley Strick and overseen by super-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.  Originally, CAPE FEAR was to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but Scorsese’s association with Spielberg and the larger generation of Film Brats led to the two men orchestrating a switch for the respective projects they were attached to: CAPE FEAR for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).  Let that sink in for a moment—we came this close to a Scorsese-directed SCHINDLER’S LIST.  It was thus that Scorsese found himself in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, directing his first mainstream thriller– a move that would exhibit his flair for thrilling narrative while giving him the wide berth he needed to explore uncharted territory.

CAPE FEAR is a story about violation, intrusion, and redemption set in the idyllic vacation town of New Essex, North Carolina.  Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a successful, respected lawyer who has recently relocated his family here in a bid to make a new start after his infidelities nearly destroyed his marriage.  However, Sam finds that his past has followed him into his new life in the form of Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a former client of Sam’s and an illiterate serial rapist.  Fifteen years before, Sam had sold Cady out to the jury instead of defending him—a betrayal motivated by his utter disgust with Cady’s transgressions.  Cady is now a free man, having spent his time in prison boning up on law books and the bible.  He makes his presence known to Sam, lurking on the edge of his property and always in his periphery in public.  As Sam and his family rail against Cady’s cultivated climate of dread and fear, Cady becomes even more vicious and reveals his murderous intent.  With the lives of him and his family now put on trial, Sam must contend with a purified force of true evil.

CAPE FEAR is a showcase for De Niro’s darkest impulses as an actor, and his longtime collaborative relationship with Scorsese allows him to go deeper and farther than ever before.  His Oscar-nominated iteration of Max Cady is a far cry from Mitchum’s original portrayal, decorating himself with ominous religious tattoos that hint at his Pentecostal fanaticism and hiding his slithery, pedophilic nature behind an almost-friendly Southern drawl.  It may not be De Niro’s most powerful performance, but it lingers in the mind as a personification of some primal evil archetype lurking along the fringes of our subconscious.  Nolte also benefits from a prior collaboration with Scorsese (1989’s NEW YORK STORIES: “LIFE LESSONS”), with their personal familiarity giving Nolte the confidence to channel the driving fire underneath the mild-mannered, WASP-y character of Sam Bowden.  Jessica Lange plays Bowden’s wife, Leigh, as a strong-willed woman who refuses to become a victim either to Cady’s campaign of terror or her husband’s unfaithful nature.  And then there’s 90’s indie queen Juliette Lewis, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as fifteen year-old Danielle Bowden– Sam’s pouty, rebellious daughter who finds herself turned on by Cady’s dark charisma.

Scorsese’s supporting cast features some surprising faces, such as Joe Don Baker (better known for his appearances in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films) as private investigator Claude Kersek.  Illeana Douglas, a bit actor in Scorsese’s “LIFE LESSONS” as well as GOODFELLAS, plays Lori Davis, an emotional mistress of sorts for Sam and one of Cady’s victims.  In a pleasantly surprising move, Scorsese also casts the two leads of the 1961 CAPE FEAR in supporting cameos.  Mitchum plays Lt. Elgart, an elderly, dignified police captain, and Gregory Peck (in his final film appearance) plays Cady’s lawyer Lee Heller— a performance that’s reminiscent of something like Atticus Finch’s evil twin.

Working for the first time with cinematographer Freddie Francis, Scorsese gives CAPE FEAR the distinctive aura of the Southern Gothic subgenre—taking his tonal cues from Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), the seminal hallmark of that particular style (which also starred Mitchum, funnily enough).  Right off the bat, CAPE FEARdeparts from Scorsese’s established aesthetic in that it’s shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  As a student of film history, Scorsese had always admired the panoramic vistas afforded by a wider canvas, but he refrained from using it in his own work simply because he didn’t like the fact that he would have to compromise his original framing when performing the pan-and-scan transfer for the home video market.  He decided to adopt the anamorphic ratio for CAPE FEAR partly out of an eager optimism that true widescreen video presentations were just around the corner.  Of course, this didn’t come to pass and his nightmares were realized when he had to chop up the film to fit our square television sets.

As a mainstream studio thriller, CAPE FEAR benefits from a lavish, big-budget look that builds on classical filmmaking tropes popularized by old school masters like Alfred Hitchcock.  Indeed, CAPE FEAR plays like the best film that Hitchcock never made, with Scorsese using bold, sweeping camera movements and theatrical stage lighting to add scope and grandeur to the story.  Scorsese even steals Hitchcock’s closest collaborators, like iconic titles designer Saul Bass and composer Bernard Herrman (or rather, Herrman’s music reworked by Elmer Bernstein).  Despite his desire to emulate the style of old-fashioned Hollywood moviemaking, Scorsese still injects his own dynamic aesthetic into CAPE FEAR’s veins.  He utilizes a chaotic, dizzying mix of canted camera angles, whip-pans, rack zooms, split-focus diopter compositions, and even his signature “scream-in” shots—all assembled by regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker into a coherent (if delirious) whole.  The overall effect is one of Scorsese adding his own particular brand to a familiar property while still being respectful to the original film’s legacy.  If you’re going to remake a movie, this is how you do it, folks.

Color plays an important part in the visual storytelling of CAPE FEAR.  The 1962 original was presented in black and white, and while the use of color in the remake is a no-brainer, Scorsese actually manages to justify its use as a storytelling tool that actually enhances the narrative.  Bowden’s life is rendered in large, impersonal swaths of beige, pastels, and neutral tones—this is a man who doesn’t want to make a fuss, happy to live out a quiet life in relative anonymity.  By contrast, De Niro wears screamingly bold colors, with his blood red Hawaiian shirt and muscle car acting as particularly effective agents of aggression.  In another nod to Hitchcock, Scorsese repeatedly makes lurid use of expressionistic blocks of color that bloom to envelope the frame, acting as a propulsive pulse that shifts the colors into black and white or even negative.  This creative use of color points to Scorsese’s genius as an artist and a storyteller—a lesser filmmaker would simply update an old black and white movie to color for the sheer sake of modernity, without giving it a proper justification in the first place.

As previously mentioned, Scorsese uses Bernard Herrman’s original 1962 score for CAPE FEAR to sell the old-school vibe of his modern-day update.  Herrman’s disciple Elmer Bernstein reworks, re-arranges, and re-orchestrates the late composer’s work, even including portions of his unused score for Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN (1966).  The score is iconic for its orchestral, brassy sound, and Scorsese knows not to mess with a good thing.  Nevertheless, he does manage to find a few instances to include his own musical tastes, incorporating some opera as well as R&B into the soundtrack when characters play music on-screen.

In translating the story of CAPE FEAR to modern day sensibilities, Scorsese turns to his signature thematic fascinations in a bid to inject complexity and nuance.  Scorsese’s take is less of a good vs. evil/hunter vs. prey parable than it is a meditation on machismo and power dynamics—comparing and contrasting the raw, unhinged masculinity of Max Cady with the quiet, disciplined masculinity required by Bowden’s existence as a father and husband.  The iconography and dogma of Christianity is quite prevalent as well, except in this case it takes on a particularly perverted brand of Pentecostal belief instead of the director’s own Roman Catholicism.  De Niro sports a giant crucifix tattoo across his back, with the rest of his body covered in various passages from the Bible.  Indeed, De Niro’s Cady seems able to call up any passage from the bible at will, entirely from memory.  Of course, he’s able to pervert those same passages for his own twisted means, giving him a deluded sense of righteousness that justifies his quest to punish Sam Bowden for the wrongs done to him.  Scorsese’s use of the institution of cinema as an everyday part of his characters’ lives also sees an appearance here, with Cady and Bowden first crossing ill-fated paths during a movie screening.  And finally, other aspects of the presentation like characters breaking the fourth wall to gaze directly into the camera and messy, unpredictable displays of violence further point to Scorsese’s guiding stewardship and influence.

CAPE FEAR occupies a strange place within Scorsese’s body of work—it is lost in a sea of far superior films from the director, but for a long time, it stood as his most commercially successful work in terms of box office numbers.  It also marks Scorsese’s first experience with optical effects, like matte paintings and blue screen replacement.  His confidence with visual effects would grow with each film, to the point where his most recent films make copious use of computer-generated effects and digital backdrops (for better or worse).  Now, over two decades removed from the film’s release, CAPE FEAR holds up as a strong, albeit minor work in Scorsese’s filmography.  As an excursion into genre-oriented filmmaking (and a genre Scorsese was previously unfamiliar with, to that end), CAPE FEAR proves itself as an effective foray into the heart of darkness found buried at the bottom of each and every man.

CAPE FEAR is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.


Produced by: Barbara De Fina

Executive Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall

Written by: Wesley Strick

Director of Photography: Freddie Francis

Production Designer: Henry Bumstead

Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker

Titles by: Saul Bass

Music by: Bernard Herrman via Elmer Bernstein