By Marc S. Sanders
Would you ever think that Martin Scorsese could be a master of horror? I do. I thought so ever since I saw his remake of Cape Fear, back in 1991, featuring Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis. This cast of four is an astonishing assemblage of talent, complimented with players from the original film, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, as well as Joe Don Baker, Fred Thompson and Illeana Douglas.
Wesley Strick is credited with this updated screenplay that questions the measure of sin; pot vs heroine, battery vs rape, flirting vs infidelity, as well as the ethics and justifications that we reason with every day.
DeNiro provides one of his greatest roles. He lost the Oscar in 1991 to Anthony Hopkins. Reader, DeNiro should have won for a much more complex, fleshed out part. He plays Max Cady, a man released from prison after a fourteen year stretch. His focus during his time was to learn how to read, build up his body, tattoo his flesh with the principals he inherited from the Almighty Bible and other literary sources, and most importantly reconnect with his defense attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte in one of his best roles, as well). Cady needs to remind Bowden of how he was misrepresented during his trial.
Strick’s screenplay is so smart. Smart because the antagonist never, ever makes an error, not until the end of the story. Cady’s intelligence is always one step above anyone else’s intuition and with the literal mechanics of the law beside him, Cady’s tactics come off very believably. Cady might come off as hokey, hillbilly white trash with ugly polyester clothing, a slicked back mullet and a fat, offensive cigar but he is a smart hunter who will weaken his victims before initiating his attack.
Bowden is a smart lawyer but he’s at a loss, and he does not have the support he needs from his family to protect himself and them, Jessica Lange as his wife and Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis as his daughter. Lange is very good as a wife who has survived marital turmoil of infidelity from her husband. She’s a marketing career woman who does not succumb to Sam as being head of the household. Sam asks that the dog not be put on the table and Lange as Leigh Bowden scoffs at his concern.
Fifteen years old at the time, Lewis is astonishing as a young girl discovering her sexuality but unsure of what is appropriate; almost like a kid finding a loaded weapon in a closet. One of the greatest acting sequences in the last thirty years, occurs between DeNiro and Lewis alone on a stage set against a sinister lighted Hansel & Gretel set. Lewis twitches and stutters like any girl would, as DeNiro assuredly comforts her and seduces her into a touch that leads to a kiss. Scorsese uses this midpoint scene to quiet down an aggressively frighteningly film, meticulously edited by the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker. Before this moment, telephone rings, shutters, racket balls, car engines, aggressive close-up zooms, and Elmer Bernstein’s horn and string sections of his orchestra startle you and scare you when almost nothing terribly vicious has really happened. When we arrive at Lewis and DeNiro’s scene, Scorsese quiets it all down. He needs no devices for this exchange of disturbing, yet researched dialogue by Strick, blended with the performance talents he has at his disposal.
Another stand out performance belongs to Illeana Douglas in a small, early role. She plays a court clerk to Bowden’s lawyer and they are flirtatious. Cady uses this as an opportunity to remind Bowden that he must take his sins seriously. Douglas is supreme in an inebriated scene with DeNiro as she flirts with him and then goes to bed with him. We can sense the danger she’s in. Douglas’ drunken portrayal cannot. Never does she look like she’s foreseeing her immediate future.
It’s ironic, really. I can’t help but compare Cape Fear to any one of the various slasher films featuring Jason, Freddy, Michael, etc. Those guys stalk the house or are seen from the distance at the end of the street. Those are horror films as well where an entity stalks a prey. Scorsese really has that here with Strick’s screenplay. However, Scorsese finds other ways than to just have the menace be…well the menace. He offers up an overabundance of fireworks behind Cady as he sits in Bowden’s backyard. He’s got Bernstein’s blaring horns and squealing strings for soundtrack, of course. He colors the palette of the sky above Bowden’s doomed house in bruised purples and blood reds. He even changes the perception of the Bowden family by showing what they are looking at in a sort of X-ray/black light like state. Are they seeing what they think they are seeing? Sure, Cady is stalking them, but in a given moment, are they just being paranoid by the disturbances Cady has cemented in their consciousness?
I’d imagine these are filmmaking inventions of Scorsese not specifically featured in Strick’s script. That’s what makes Martin Scorsese a director above so many others. He doesn’t just settle for the page. He won’t necessarily manipulate the script, but he won’t settle to just leave it at only what he reads. Cape Fear is a demonstration in unsettling, visual terror, and it’s worth revisiting for a look.
One thought on “CAPE FEAR (1991)”
I used to work with a guy who liked to yell, “Counselor!”, with the same menacing drawl as DeNiro. He thought it was fun. (No, I didn’t work in a law firm or a prison. 😉)