The Test of Time: Cape Fear (1991)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, and Jessica Lange.

Revenge is currently selling and selling well at the box office, with Leonardo DiCaprio giving the world more frozen snot boogers than anyone asked for as he drags himself across a state to find the man who murdered his son. Over the past decade or so, we’ve gotten used to Leo working with the true master of cinema: Martin Scorsese who has tackled just about all subject matters and genres. And it just so happens Scorsese once (re)made a hellva revenge flick himself with his old muse Robert DeNiro. Now, I don’t think I need to give a list of Scorsese’s accomplishments as the man is a genius, but does that mean all his films hold up against the test of time?

Under the examination: CAPE FEAR .

DeNiro's laugh should scare anyone.

THE STORY: Tattooed psycho/convicted rapist Max Cady (DeNiro) has just been released from prison, and he’s a bit pissed. Not just at the world, but more specifically at his former lawyer Sam Bowden (Nolte), who Cady rightly believes did a shit job as his defense attorney, landing him in jail for 15 years. Cady moves to his lawyer’s sleepy Southern town where he plans to completely f*ck up Bowden’s seemingly perfect life with wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Cady takes his time, toying with the lawyer in an attempt to either drive him nutty or make him react in the worst kind of way. At the same time, Bowden, knowing he bent the law once to do what he thought was right, might have to do it again to protect his family. The problem? How far will both go to get what they want?

Creepy and sexy...what an odd mix. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: For those who can’t watch a movie without a full color palette, 1991’s CAPE FEAR is a remake (not a reboot or reimagining or remodel) of 1962’s CAPE FEAR (starring legendary badasses Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck) which was based on John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners. Knowing that and the fact this was directed by film historian Scorsese, we have ourselves an odd hybrid of modern thriller (well, 1991 modern) mixed with old school filmmaking. Some might not dig Scorsese’s throwback stylings, but it’s one of two parts that obviously holds up damn well: the acting and the directing. Duh, right?

On the latter, this is a Scorsese movie so not only does the movie look fantastic, but moves and flows near perfectly. The man always has a way of making scenes feel alive and interesting, even if not a lot is going down. Part of that is helped by the cinematography (by Freddie Francis) as the camera swoops and moves through every moment.  Even more so, Scorsese captures America and can make characters pop like no other director, and that’s on full display here. I can’t argue that he’s done it better before (he has), but damn if CAPE FEAR doesn’t have great scenes (my favorite comes when DeNiro and Nolte meet for the first time). 

Now that's good prison tattoo work. 

As for the acting CAPE FEAR actually pisses me off a bit. Not the movie, no, but more so because of the damn effectiveness of Robert DeNiro back in the day. We all know the man’s talent, but if anyone has only seen his current work (like DIRTY GRANDPA) they might not have any idea. CAPE FEAR is a perfect display of DeNiro’s talent, giving us a character he’s never played before. We’ve seen psycho in movies many times, but he shows us all kinds of crazy with Max Cady. He’s likeable, charming, and utterly terrifying. About 30 minutes in we get a taste of Cady’s capability when he meets Bowden’s co-worker (Illena Douglas who was Scorsese’s girlfriend at the time…just a little old gossip for you) at a bar and beats her terribly. It’s bad enough the beating, but the biting of her cheek (and then spitting a chunk of flesh onto the floor) takes it to another level and shows us all this ain’t a dude to mess with.

The rest of the cast is equally great. Nolte always delivers. Juliette Lewis plays innocent without being obnoxious, and Lange really brings the torture to tortured wife.

He's actually smiling. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: At times it feels like Nick Nolte is almost too intense for the role. The man lives on intensity. I think when he eats Lucky Charms in the morning he death glares each marshmallow in his bowl. The man can’t help it. Unfortunately, his character isn’t that. DeNiro and Scorsese originally tried to talk Harrison Ford into taking the role, and Ford obviously would have been the better fit as the subdued stressed out lawyer (which is why Gregory Peck was so great in the original role). I’m not knocking his performance which is plenty good, but I’ve seen Nolte in too many movies; someone calmer and perhaps smaller would have been better suited.

Even as much as I dig DeNiro’s performance, he amps things up a little too high in the third act. Cady does go from realistic psycho to movie psycho quickly as things get more ridiculous and unbelievable. The worst bit of over the top comes when Cady loses his brain and starts talking to the judge (camera) asking for a conviction on Bowden’s crimes, complete with cartoon sounding swishes when he moves his head. By the way, as classic as the moment is when Cady straps himself beneath their car, it’s pretty damn silly after he detaches himself and comes back up air with…his cigar still holding firm in his front t-shirt pocket. That’s some shirt pocket

His frown is upside down. 

THE VERDICT: CAPE FEAR probably will never end up on Scorsese or DeNiro’s greatest hits list. Should it? Well, it’s competing with GOODFELLAS, RAGING BULL, TAXI DRIVER and CASINO (among their collaborations, not their individual list). But that doesn’t mean much because those films remain so f*ckin good. CAPE FEAR just isn’t a massive hit in their long list of hits. It’s like the fourth single on a good album. Great, but never on par with the gold standard.



Scorsese, Nolte, Mitchum. 

Extra Tidbit: What do YOU think of Cape Fear?



Latest Movie News Headlines