Cape Fear 1991 Movie Scene Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden and Jessica Lange as Leigh watching through the shutters of their window at Max Cady

Cape Fear [1991]

Can a movie hold the same foreboding level of suspense and intensity for more than 90 minutes? To be on the cusp of exploding into a disturbing fury without ever knowing when that explosion is going to happen. Moreover, not only do you not know the time but you do not know the form. Is this going to be a simple case of murder or something much more sinister? Will it happen in episodes or it will come down to one big final showdown? Can a movie really be all this? Well, apparently, it can. In the hands of one of the best directors of that period, Martin Scorsese, it certainly can.

Cape Fear is a masterpiece of tension, a superb thriller featuring an authentic story and even better performances. It’s about a lawyer whose mistakes from the past come to torment him in the present. You see, Max Cady, a vicious rapist blames his lawyer Sam Bowden for his imprisonment. And he had sixteen long years to plot his revenge. When you read this short summary, it feels quite familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, for the longest time, I confused Cape Fear with the 1995 movie The Crossing Guard starring Jack Nicholson.

The two movies do have some things in common but they feature entirely different stories. Cape Fear 1991 is actually a remake of the 1962 movie of the same name. And that movie is based on the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. Do not let the years fool you, the plot is just as relevant today as it was more than half a century ago. This is a mainstream chiller, a movie that the average viewer can freely watch without much fear of graphic violence. The premise is an extremely powerful one. Moreover, it’s insanely relatable, and at each turn, I kept thinking about what would I do in that situation.

In a situation where you and your family are targeted by a genuinely evil individual hellbent on making you suffer. An intelligent, physically and mentally strong individual without moral values. Well, apart from their own twisted version of biblical justice. I don’t remember watching this movie prior to tonight, which is quite odd. If I had to guess, I would say I watched it when I was younger and then, due to its traumatizing nature, blanked it from my memory. Cape Fear is one of those movies that stay with you. It’s an experience you’re going to share with your friends, trying to unravel all the conflicting emotions and decisions the characters made.

Moreover, this is a movie that strikes right in the heart of our society, rationally deconstructing it. What is left is an objective state of things. Something several characters will explain several times in the movie. The police, courts, and the whole criminal justice system are good at tackling general problems. However, what they’re not good at are deviously intelligent individuals determined to get their way. The character development is simply flawless, offering realistically flawed characters. And they behave in the way you would expect them to behave. Some are frustratingly stubborn while others are aloof, not aware of the grave danger that awaits them.

It goes without saying that the performances from our all-star cast were phenomenal. Robert De Niro gave us an unforgettable villain whose truly frightening. In fact, his Southern accent gave the director Martin Scorcese the creeps. So, De Niro called his house pretending his Max Cady and left threatening messages on his answering machine. And I have to add that Mr. Cady had one hell of a selection of Hawaiian shirts. The red one with the palms and the moon is my favorite. Opposite of him, we have Nick Nolte with a delicately subdued performance enabling you to put yourself in his shoes.

Young Juliette Lewis, who was 18 at the time of the filming, was just as good along with Jessica Lange. And the supporting cast almost stole the show from the leads. Not only do we have Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, who were in the original movie, but also Joe Don Baker who plays Kersek. He was excellent as the no-bullshit private investigator who can get shit done. Speaking of the original, there were quite a lot of changes in this adaptation. The finale was much more action-oriented and Cady was much crazier.

You can say that De Niro overacted a bit, opting for flashiness rather than subversive deviancy. On the other hand, both movies pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock in a lot of ways. Some of them are pretty obvious like the creative camera angles and others are more subtle. The transitions are also quite quirky defusing some of that almost unbearable tension. If you’re looking for movies like Cape Fear, I suggest you check out Unlawful EntrySe7en, and Prisoners

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writers: John D. MacDonald, James R. Webb, Wesley Strick

Cast: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas, Robert Mitchum

Fun Facts: To appear as a rough convicted rapist, Robert De Niro used a dentist to make his teeth look crooked. He paid him $5.000 for his services and $20.000 once the production was complete to restore their natural appearance.


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