Rapid Response: Cape Fear (1991)

Sometimes you wonder when you’re watching “Cape Fear” if Martin Scorsese was making a remake of the 1962 horror movie or of “Vertigo.”

He’s got the Saul Bass title sequence, the Elmer Bernstein score channeling Bernard Hermann, Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in minor cameos, stark fades into solid colors and a film that is intentionally pitched at a level of sheer insanity.

“Cape Fear” was not well received by critics upon its release. It was seen as yet another genre picture by a director capable of so much more, least of all immediately after the masterpiece that was “Goodfellas” a year prior. But it has a lot more style and personality from Scorsese than “The Color of Money” did, because Scorsese isn’t just looking to make a genre picture but a film with dark characters, heavy themes, strong cinematic references, big ideas and even bigger performances.

Robert De Niro is so effing brilliant as the sadistic ex-con Max Cady. It hearkens back to a time when De Niro actually, you know, acted. In terrorizing Nick Nolte and his family, he has this calming, charming, attractive eloquence that puts the rest of the family’s neurotic insanity into perspective. He pulls a lot from Robert Mitchum’s playbook for his performances in both the original “Cape Fear” and “The Night of the Hunter,” but he makes the character his own. He displays charismatic insanity and proves to be capable of surprising violence and intensity.

So thanks to his performance, Scorsese is able to go ape shit. Nolte, Jessica Lange and a young Juliette Lewis are all flawed, weak members of their own dysfunctional family, but ultimately they’re fairly thin, capable of going crazy with just a little prodding. Scorsese has them and us jumping at just the sound of a phone ringing, jolting the camera towards it and blaring its ringing aggressively. Later, Scorsese turns our world upside down and dangles us by a thread, with the camera in a close up of De Niro hanging from a pull up bar, his hair flailing wildly like the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

This Max Cady character, what with his clever ability to never cross into territory of breaking the law, always finding ways to get one step ahead of Nolte and nitpick at his mind, the bible warnings printed all over his body and finally his superhuman strength against thugs and lighter fluid, he strikes me as more of an allegory about insanity than an actual person. But the sheer madness of the film’s final moments as Cady continues fighting and screaming against all odds even goes beyond the stretches of what could possibly be considered allegorical.

“Cape Fear” is possibly more exaggerated and intense than even something like “Shutter Island,” another Scorsese that veered from his comfort zone into the realm of madness. But it resonated with audiences as the 12th highest grossing movie of 1991 and earned De Niro his most recent Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It’s by far not the finest work from Scorsese but so indicative of how versatile an artist he has become in the modern day.