Cape Fear is a 1991 American psychological thriller film directed by Martin Scorsese and a remake of the 1962 film of the same name. It stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Joe Don Baker, Juliette Lewis, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck in his final theatrical film role. In addition to Mitchum and Peck, Martin Balsam cameos in the remake; all three starred in the original film. The film tells the story of a convicted rapist, who, mostly by using his newfound knowledge of the law and its numerous loopholes, seeks vengeance against a former public defender, whom he blames for his 14-year imprisonment because of the purposefully faulty defense tactics used during his trial.

Cape Fear marks the seventh collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro. The film received positive reviews and was a commercial success. It received Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Lewis).

Plot[edit | edit source]

Sam Bowden is a lawyer in the town of New Essex, North Carolina. Max Cady is a former client whom Bowden defended 14 years earlier when he was working as a public defender in Atlanta. Cady was tried for the violent rape and battery of a young woman. Bowden, appalled by Cady's crime, buried evidence that might have lightened Cady's sentence or even secured his acquittal. Cady studied law in prison and assumed his own defense, unsuccessfully appealing his conviction several times. Cady hints he has learned about Bowden burying the report. After his release from prison, Cady tracks down Bowden.

Cady soon begins to terrorise Bowden, his wife Leigh and their teenage daughter Danielle. The family dog is poisoned. Cady lurks near their property. Bowden attempts to have Cady arrested, but Police Lieutenant Elgart says there is no evidence of a crime. At a bar, Cady meets Bowden's colleague Lori Davis. At her house, Cady violently rapes her. Lori refuses to press charges, ashamed of what happened. Bowden hires private investigator Claude Kersek to follow Cady.

Cady approaches Danielle at her school by impersonating her new drama teacher and kisses her. Bowden warns Cady to leave him and his family alone or suffer the consequences. Cady secretly tapes the conversation with a hidden recorder. Kersek persuades Bowden to hire three men to beat Cady, but as Bowden watches from a hiding place, Cady turns the tide on his attackers and viciously beats them. Cady uses the recording of Bowden's threat and an exaggerated display of his own injuries to file for a restraining order against Bowden. Cady's new lawyer, Lee Heller, files a complaint with the North Carolina State Bar and vows to have Bowden disbarred.

Kersek reasons that Cady may try to enter Bowden's house during Bowden's appearance at a bar hearing out of town. They fake Bowden's departure and hide in the house, hoping that Cady will break in so that he can be shot in self-defense. Cady kills the Bowden's housekeeper Graciela and impersonates her to ambush and kill Kersek. Horrified after discovering the bodies, Sam, Leigh, and Danielle flee to their houseboat docked upstate along Cape Fear.

Cady follows them by tying himself to the chassis of their car. He attacks the family on the boat, beating and tying up Bowden; he is preparing to rape Leigh and Danielle while making Bowden watch. Danielle sprays Cady with lighter fluid while he lights a cigar, engulfing him in flames and causing him to jump off the boat. However, Cady clings to a rope and pulls himself back on board. As the boat is rocked by a violent thunderstorm, a badly burned and deranged Cady confronts Bowden and his family, putting the former on a mock trial to condemn him for withholding the specific evidence that would have given him a lighter sentence in jail. Despite Bowden's insistence that his crime was too heinous for that evidence to be taken into account, Cady berates him for failing to properly do his duty as a lawyer. The storm eventually knocks Cady off of his feet, allowing Bowden to gain the upper hand once the women make it to shore. Bowden uses Cady's handcuffs to shackle Cady to the boat. When the boat hits a rock and is destroyed, the fight continues on shore. A raging tide carries Cady away and he drowns. Bowden washes the blood from his hands before he rejoins Leigh and Danielle.

Cast[edit | edit source]

Production[edit | edit source]

The film was adapted by Wesley Strick from the original screenplay by James R. Webb, which was an adaptation from the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald.

It was originally developed by Steven Spielberg, who eventually decided it was too violent and traded it to Scorsese to get back Schindler's List, which Scorsese had decided not to make. Spielberg stayed on as a producer, through his Amblin Entertainment, but chose not to be credited personally on the finished film.[2]

Despite having worked with Nolte in New York Stories (1989), Scorsese did not have him in mind to portray Sam Bowden and wanted Harrison Ford to play the part instead. Ford, however, agreed to do the film only if he was going to portray Max Cady. Nolte, who was interested in portraying Bowden, managed to convince Scorsese to cast him for the part. In addition, Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon both auditioned for the part of Danielle Bowden and Spielberg reportedly wanted Bill Murray to portray Cady.[3]

Nick Nolte is taller than Robert De Niro, but for the movie, Nolte lost weight and De Niro developed muscles until De Niro appeared to be the stronger man. De Niro reportedly took his body fat down to 4%.[4] De Niro also paid a doctor $5,000 to grind down his teeth for the role to give the character a more menacing look, later paying $20,000 to have his teeth restored after the film production was over.[5]

The work of Alfred Hitchcock was also influential on the style of Cape Fear. As with the 1962 film version, where director J. Lee Thompson specifically acknowledged Hitchcock's influence, strove to use Hitchcock's style, and had Bernard Hermann write the score, Scorsese made his version in the Hitchcock manner, especially through the use of unusual camera angles, lighting, and editing techniques. Additionally, Scorsese's version has opening credits designed by regular Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass, and the link to Hitchcock is cemented by the reuse of the original score by Herrmann, albeit reworked by Elmer Bernstein.[6]

Reception[edit | edit source]

Box office[edit | edit source]

The film was a box office success, making $182,291,969 worldwide on a $35 million budget.

Critical response[edit | edit source]

The film received generally positive reviews by critics, with praise garnered towards its performances, direction, cinematography and editing. It received a 73% "Certified Fresh" rating on the film aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 49 reviews, with an average score of 7.06/10. The consensus reads, "Smart and stylish, Cape Fear is a gleefully mainstream shocker from Martin Scorsese, with a terrifying Robert De Niro performance."[8] On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 73 out of 100 based on 9 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[9] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[10]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars, commenting: "Cape Fear is impressive moviemaking, showing Scorsese as a master of a traditional Hollywood genre who is able to mold it to his own themes and obsessions. But as I look at this $35 million movie with big stars, special effects and production values, I wonder whether it represents a good omen from the finest director now at work."

Awards and honors

Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards Best Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Juliette Lewis Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Cinematography Freddie Francis Nominated
Best Editing Thelma Schoonmaker Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Berlin Bear[1] Martin Scorsese Nominated
Broadcast Music, Inc. BMI Film Music Award Elmer Bernstein Won
CFCA Awards Best Director Martin Scorsese Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Nominated
Most Promising Actress Won
David di Donatello Award Best Foreign Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Jupiter Award Best International Actor Won
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Won
MTV Movie Awards Best Kiss Nominated
Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Male Performance Nominated
Best Villain Nominated
National Society of Film Critics Award Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actress Won
Best Cinematographer Freddie Francis Won


In popular culture[edit | edit source]

The film was parodied in the 1993 Simpsons episode "Cape Feare", with Sideshow Bob in the role of Cady. They also pay homage to another Robert Mitchum film The Night of the Hunter in which Sideshow Bob's knuckles (scaled down for a cartoon character with one fewer finger on each hand) say "Luv" (Love) and "Hāt" (Hate, with the diacritical mark providing the long vowel).

In 1995, professional wrestler Waylon Mercy made his WWE (then WWF) debut, with his gimmick based on De Niro's portrayal of Max Cady. However, he only lasted a few months with the company due to a buildup of previous injuries, and the character was abandoned. In 2013, WWE debuted Bray Wyatt, another character partly based on De Niro's portrayal.[13]

In the Seinfeld episode "The Red Dot", as Elaine's boyfriend rampages through her office to get revenge on Jerry for making him lose his job, Elaine makes a reference to the film.

Also in the Seinfeld episode “The Bookstore”, in a dream after Jerry rats on Uncle Leo for shoplifting in a bookstore, Jerry has a nightmare where Uncle Leo is doing chin ups, working out in prison to get his revenge on Jerry once he finally received his release. A close up, sharing the same scary score of the movie, Uncle Leo is seen with “Jerry” & “Hello” tattooed on each hand. It's a clear reference to Robert De Niro's character in Cape Fear.

In the Rick and Morty episode "Ricksy Business", Lucy (the deranged maid who tries to rape Jerry) is shown clinging to the underside chassis of their car as they drive home, maniacally shouting "Ha, I'm doing like in Cape Fear!"

Cultural references In the movie, Danielle is pictured reading Thomas Wolfe's 1929 coming-of-age novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

Kersek tells Sam he saw Cady at the public library reading Friedrich Nietzsche's classic philosophical novel Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Pretending to be Danielle's new drama teacher, Cady calls Danielle on the phone. After a short conversation, he plays Aretha Franklin's single "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."

Alone with Danielle in the school's theater, Cady alludes to Henry Miller's trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion, which contains the books Plexus, Nexus, and Sexus. Danielle says she read parts of Tropic of Cancer.

Cady tells Sam he will teach him "the meaning of commitment." He tells Sam to "check out the Bible, counselor. Look between Esther and Psalms." After staging his departure at the airport, Sam returns home covertly with Leigh and Danielle, and later discovers Cady was referring to the Book of Job.

Cady quotes a translation of the 17th century priest, physician, mystic, and poet, Angelus Silesius, saying:

“ I am like God, and God like me. I am as Large as God, He is as small as I. He cannot above me, nor I beneath him, be. ”

Cady alludes to Dante's Inferno, saying he is Virgil guiding Sam through the Ninth Circle of Hell, the last and lowest circle, reserved for traitors.

  1. Berlinale: 1992 Programme. berlinale.de. Retrieved on 2011-05-22.
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.