Cape Fear (1991): My scariest non-horror film of all time

At the risk of opening with a wildly overused rhetorical question, what’s the deal with the career trajectory of Robert De Niro? From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, the man stood supreme as one of the greatest actors that there had ever been and ever will be. The majority of his collaborations with Martin Scorsese ranking among the finest films ever made, he has showcased his awe-inspiring chameleonic bent many times with several iconic directors, as unrecognisable when he walks around in the skin of deeply troubled and unpredictable chaps such as Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta as he is with the quiet contemplation of David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson and Neil McCauley.

His intense method yielding a plethora of authentic and distinctive performances, De Niro has long been regarded as the textbook example of putting on a clinic in character submersion. But, over the last 20 years, something rather odd happened. I genuinely don’t begrudge anyone having a bit of fun (Midnight Run is a superior comedy-thriller and the foremost example of De Niro’s robust humour chops), but the fact that he demonstrably has/had the eye and the knack for works of uncannily terrific calibre makes his sharp turn into lowest-common-denominator drivel all the more puzzling. It isn’t merely the likes of awful ‘laugh-riots’ such as the Meet The Parents franchise or Dirty Grandpa, his horrible phone-in turns in pound-shop dreck like Righteous Kill, The Killing Season and The Bag Man are equally culpable in this downward spiral. I’m well aware that I might sound like a profoundly negativistic dick right now, but I grew up strongly revering the man and it just bums me out, that’s all.

Anyway, the excellent part of his legacy won’t be going anywhere so I had the urge to take a look back at one of his greatest films that isn’t discussed quite as frequently as the rest of his notable efforts, even though it damn well should be. Based on the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald and J. Lee Thompson’s initial 1962 big-screen adaptation, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 thriller Cape Fear constitutes a crowning achievement for everyone involved, a technically mighty and unforgettably performed examination of retribution and depravity that retains its power to scare the living shit out of yours truly.

De Niro is Max Cady, fresh out of prison after serving 14 years for rape and aggravated sexual battery. A slovenly, illiterate psychopath and sexual sadist from the backwaters of Georgia upon entrance, Cady’s time has rid him of his self-destructive attributes, sculpting an extremely taught and ripped physique and displaying keen intellectual reflexes by both learning how to read and enthusiastically absorbing an abundance of philosophical and legal literature. Having lost everything but his predation, this wily, eloquent and physically powerful creep is walking out of the gates with one thing in mind: Samuel J. Bowden.

Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a defence lawyer living and working in the fictional Georgian town of New Essex. Well-respected and successful, Sam ostensibly lives a picture-postcard life in a lovely home with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and 16-year-old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). All is not serene on the domestic front, however. With a roving eye and a history of infidelity, Sam’s selfish indiscretions have all but destroyed poor Leigh’s love for him, the dysfunctional matriarch finding some modicum of personal & professional solace in her career as a graphic designer. The couple’s ongoing healing has had an alienating effect on the precocious Danielle, an intelligent and lonely girl who buries her head in books and the performing arts. With daily drudgeries seen to by their barely-acknowledged housekeeper Graciela (Zully Montero), the weaknesses in this complacent upper-middle-class household leave it stitched together by a thread. Much to everybody’s detriment, these weaknesses are intimately known by Cady, who intends to exploit them to his full advantage.

You see, 14 years ago in Atlanta, Bowden worked as Cady’s defence during his trial for the horrific attack on a teenage girl that cost him nearly a decade and a half of his life. A vastly more intelligent and intuitive individual than the dime-a-dozen hick Bowden remembers him as, Cady’s legal edification has led him to believe that vital evidence failed to appear in court at any point, evidence that could have potentially secured him a lesser sentence or even an acquittal. Convinced that Sam intentionally suppressed the necessary documents, Max reintroduces himself to the counsellor with faux-affability and the promise that he is ‘going to learn about loss’. There are no limits to our antagonist’s guile and viciousness as he sets out to grind down Bowden’s psyche before taking the ultimate diabolical revenge upon the hapless and conceited legal eagle, Sam’s reciprocation of dirty tricks only intensifying the ordeal to a degree that he could never have imagined.

While the original 1962 film starring Gregory Peck & Robert Mitchum as Bowden and Cady is a fantastic milestone of film-noir, Wesley Strick’s screenplay deftly amplifies the nastiness by introducing a comprehensive moral ambiguity and a more explicit emphasis on Max Cady’s talent for extremely wicked mind-breaking. Indubitably one of De Niro’s most memorable characters, this extremely patient, confident, shockingly violent and maniacal bibliophile is adorned with menacing body art that references Old Testament justice, his perverse interpretation of Holy Book passages cementing his conviction that he is an avenging angel delivering a narcissistic and treacherous wrongdoer his just desserts. Max hails from a Pentecostal background, complete with snake-handling and strychnine consumption, and this underpins a latent, terrifying religious zealotry behind his brutal vendetta against Sam that is neatly juxtaposed with a sly and worldly libido. With an impressively strong Southern U.S. accent, long, slicked-back hair, incessant cigar smoking and a penchant for garish Hawaiian shirts, there is a darkly amusing edge to De Niro’s acting in that Max’s appearance and demeanour could easily slip into cartoonishness were it not for his seamless applications of idiosyncrasy. He knowingly plays up the gaudy and philistinic stereotype of a hillbilly ex-con to keep his adversaries in the dark about his upper hand, an indicator of disquieting cunning that is bolstered by De Niro’s intense stares and wry grins.

Far from a garden-variety psycho with a grudge, Max takes on the form of an insidious adjudicator out to punish Sam for a comprehensive life of ‘sin’, unpredictably and ferociously hitting him where it really hurts so that he and Leigh’s scars open up into fresh wounds once more. The uncomfortable dynamic of the Bowden clan is extremely believable and nuanced, thanks to the powerhouse performances of Nolte, Lange and Lewis. A staple pick for towering tough guys, Nolte slimmed down for the role to decrease his physical imposition, adorning glasses and an against-type insouciant demeanour, playing Sam as something of an egotistical fool who drastically underestimates Max’s power to annihilate his existence. Close to playing away from home again and attempting to deal with Cady in numerous ways that backfire, Sam’s self-involved defensiveness and commitment to taking certain secrets to the grave is illuminated in blisteringly executed airings of grievances with Lange, the latter putting in a highly naturalistic portrayal of a long-suffering, self-medicating spouse. As the marital bond grows more threadbare, Danielle becomes more angry and isolated, feelings that, along with her sexual awakening, are ripe pickings for Max to exploit in one of the tensest and most awkward cinematic sequences I’ve seen in my entire life. We are never free of the feeling that Cady is watching every move the family makes.

This immersive reign of terror is great enough on paper, but what really brings everything about Cape Fear to life is how much of a veritable feast of sight & sound the thing is. With its stylistic trappings acting as a wonderful tribute to its noir roots, Elmer Bernstein re-works the original film’s Bernard Herrmann score and loses none of its power, a mighty and threatening arrangement of string and wind instruments that leaves you under no illusion that you’re in for an exquisitely dark and primal ride from the get-go. Its motif utility, acting for all intents and purposes as ‘Max’s theme’, is magnified in its unease by the piercing, anachronistic style. Scorsese and cinematographer Freddie Francis compound the nail-biting atmosphere with a visual love letter to Hitchcock, observing Cady and the Bowdens via angles, cuts and lighting choices that were popularised, if not inaugurated, by the Master of Suspense, and it creates an elusive temporal uncertainty that sits perpetually on a knife-edge, making the sporadic interludes of extreme violence all the more chilling. These techniques are fundamental in keeping the promise of its title (named for a focal North Carolina headland), the film being an exercise in slow-building, undiluted fear that scares me shitless in a way most horrors can’t.

An everlasting portrait of familial toxicity that is exacerbated by a single-minded agent of corruption and destruction, Cape Fear remains of the rawest and most surprising psychological thrillers released in the twentieth century. It’s De Niro when he was still at his peak, matched in brilliance by Nolte and a solid supporting cast that includes cameos from Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam, a deeply satisfying bit of reverence for the original picture. One of the few remakes I adore, it’s a singular kind of nasty that stays in your head for a long time afterwards, but Christ, is it worth it.

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