Cape Fear

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 1991


The general rule of thumb, is that remakes are futile endeavours, only serving to mar the excellence of the original.

But, occasionally, you get one that is sheer brilliance, and is every bit as good as it’s origins and, seldom, even better.

Martin Scorsese’s 1991 take on J. Lee Thompson’s original, falls into that category.

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is released from prison after serving a fourteen year stretch for sexual assault and battery on a sixteen year old girl.

Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) was his defender in the case but, disgusted by what Cady did, buried an important file that would have seen Cady found not guilty.

Angry at Bowden’s lack of defence in the trial, Cady begins to terrorise the lawyer and his family in revenge.

Being an updated version, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is far more brutal and savage than it’s 1962 counterpart. Where Thompson’s film was restricted by the censors reflecting moral attitudes of the time, Scorsese’s film has the luxury of a more loosened era. This allows the filmmaker to show the savagery of Cady, and the sickening horror of violence.

With its sordid storyline, turning the film into an unintended exploitation piece would be incredibly easy. But the director of Taxi Driver, deftly walks that tightrope causing us to feel appalled and nauseous at Cady’s actions.

De Niro is superb as the psychotic ex-inmate. Worryingly, he is totally believable, fully immersing himself in the role. Caked in tattoos and carrying a toned physique, the actor IS Max Cady. Snapping wrists and biting chunks of flesh out of a poor girl’s face, the star of Mean Streets makes the viewer hate and detest the character, playing him with frightening authenticity.

As an actor, Nick Nolte has a fairly limited range. With his gravelly voice, Nolte is rarely any different in any of his films. Whether it’s Jack Cates in 48 HRS or Sam Bowden in Cape Fear, Nolte’s approach is always the same; lose your temper and shout a lot.

The real weak point in the movie, however, is the casting of Juliette Lewis as the Bowden’s fifteen year old daughter. Utterly unbelievable, Lewis looks far too old as for the age she’s supposed to be portraying and her performance has more wood than Sherwood Forest. Employing a little girl act, the actress has clearly forgotten what being a fifteen year old was like.

Cape Fear is De Niro’s movie all the way, and rightly so. He dominates every scene, and out performs the entire cast. It really isn’t any wonder that he’s regarded as the one of the greatest actors Hollywood has ever seen.

Cold with a vicious streak, Cape Fear is powerhouse of a thriller and is easily a contender for a place on a “best of the 90’s” list.

Gripping yet uncomfortable, it’s that irony that keeps you hooked. But, ultimately, Scorsese’s film is a fine example of acting and direction, that few filmmakers of today can pull off.


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