CAPE FEAR

(1991)
With Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Fred Dalton Thompson, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Reviewed by JB

Counseler?     With CAPE FEAR, Scorsese willingly became a director for hire, taking on a project Universal had originally given to Steven Spielberg.  It is Scorsese attempting a pure genre film, a suspense thriller based on the classic 1962 film of the same title starring Gregory Peck as a lawyer and Robert Mitchum as an ex-con out to seek psychological and physical revenge.  The resulting film was Scorsese's most popular film to that point, doing more bix office than even THE COLOR OF MONEY or GOODFELLAS.

     CAPE FEAR is about sin and punishment.  Attorney Sam Bowdon (Nolte), knowing his client to be guilty, buried potentially exculpatory evidence in the trial of rapist Max Cady (De Niro) fourteen years ago.  Now out of jail, Cady comes back to make Bowdon pay for that sin of omission.  In the original CAPE FEAR, we cared about Sam Bowdon because he was played by Gregory Peck.  Nick Nolte, a fine actor in his own right, does not have that kind of star power (Scorsese originally wanted Harrison Ford or Robert Redford) but his Bowdon is the more interesting character.  He is a thoroughly flawed individual with much to attone for, especially with his marital infidelities threatening to break his family apart. Enter Max Cady, who has an uncanny ability to read Bowdon's situation and exploit it to full advantage.  His antagonism of the Bowdon family leaves them with few options except revenge, and Cady even uses that to his advantage, eventually turning the situation completely inside out so that it is Bowdon himself who is slapped with a restraining order.

      Robert De Niro's portrayal of Cady is completely over the top, almost as outrageous as Al Pacino's unforgettable turn in SCARFACE.  He is a pure psycho driven mad by his later-gained knowledge of his lawyer's unethical tactics that led to 14 years in jail.  As part of Scorsese's nod to genre films, Cady also proves to be nearly as indestructable as HALLOWEEN's Michael Myers or FRIDAY THE 13TH's Jason.  The film's stormy climax on a runaway houseboat is a tour de force in filmmaking, with Scorsese freely borrowing from Spielberg and Hitchcock, two masters of the genre.  However, Max Cady's near indestructability will either work or not work for you, depending on how much suspension you like with your disbelief.

     As an homage to an entire genre, Scorsese casts Peck (in his last theatrical film), Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam in new parts.  The original score by Bernard Hermann is also reprised, adapted by Elmer Bernstein.  Even Saul Bass, famous for his work with Alfred Hitchcock, was hired to do the film's title sequence.  Although CAPE FEAR will never be counted as one of Scorsese's most meaningful films and is certainly no masterpiece, it is nevertheless one of his most plot-driven, involving movies and a fine example of a suspense thriller, Scorsese-style. 3½ - JB

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