CAPE FEAR (1991)

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Joe Don Baker, Robert Mitchum, Juliette Lewis, Gregory Peck
Director: Martin Scorsese
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 Surround, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 128 Minutes
Release Date: September 18, 2001

“My granddaddy used to handle snakes in church. Granny used to drink strychnine. I guess you could say I had a leg up, genetically speaking.”

Film ****

First off, let me take the time to thank the folks at Universal for at long last getting this movie out to DVD, because it was certainly worth the wait.

Cape Fear is much more than a high profile remake, because in this case the director happens to be Martin Scorsese, who can pretty much take any movie in history, re-create it and make it his own. Making this movie gave Scorsese the opportunity to make a classic Hollywood studio system production (talk about major originality). It took some time to convince the master director to remake Cape Fear. The 1962 thriller was a film Scorsese had always cherished as a classic B movie, in which the moral standards of the characters were set and very well illustrated. After first choice director Steven Spielberg decided he couldn’t proceed with the project, Scorsese’s longtime friend and collaborator, Robert De Niro, who had shown some enthusiastic interest in the new screenplay, eventually convinced the director to take helm at the new Cape Fear. And although the central storyline would remain the same, Scorsese made a bold choice to make the characters more dimensional, and somewhat flawed, to the point that there really isn’t a clean hero of the piece. The result is a masterfully crafted movie extravaganza, with a wonderful visual style, and a pure sense of terror, and for my money, remains to this day as one of the best thrillers of the last decade.

De Niro delivers what I consider to be easily one of his greatest and most memorable performances as Max Cady, a sharp-as-a-blade and diabolical psychopath who has just finished a 14-year stint in prison for the rape of a minor, and now that he is free he has one thing on his mind…cold-blooded revenge. His target is prosecuting attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who defended Cady 14 years ago in the rape case. It is revealed that Bowden, who had an attack of his conscience, had hidden evidence that may have saved the convict such a harsh sentence. Cady suspects it very strongly, serving as his motive for revenge. He stalks Bowden continuously, including on such outings with his wife (Jessica Lange), and sixteen year old daughter (Juliette Lewis), until he finally steps up to Cady, offering him money to leave him alone and leave town, which increases the psychological tension even more. The way Cady sees it, nothing can make up for the pain and loss he endured in prison, and he plans to teach Bowden a thing or two about loss.

Cady’s subtle threats don’t mean much say up until a graphically vicious attack on one of Bowden’s co-workers (Illeana Douglas), which strikes a nerve in the lawyer, not just because she was an acquaintance, but a rumored mistress as well, which triggers an extra dosage of fear.  To make matters worse, Sam can’t get any type of restraining order issued, since Cady committed any vicious act on him, leaving the paranoid lawyer with no choice but to turn to a hard-bitten PI (Joe Don Baker), who can track, and even possibly, inflict pain on Cady if warranted.

In addition to being a superb, masterful suspense thriller, Cape Fear gets an extra injection of brilliance from Scorsese, who once again applies his grand tradition of showing a character who’s laced with guilt, and searching for redemption and forgiveness, much like characters in such other Scorsese fare as Bringing Out the Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s so original and bold to showcase a thriller where the psychopath goes to extraordinary lengths to illustrate how much of a sinner and a criminal the protagonist is or was, which is exactly what Max Cady does to Sam Bowden near the film’s end, which contains perhaps the most elaborate and jaw dropping set pieces in any Scorsese film. I won’t give a hint of it, except that it takes place on a boat in some extreme stormy weather. The whole action sequence is nothing short of exhilarating.

In terms of content and budget, Cape Fear is the one movie that truly stands out in Martin Scorsese’s long list of brilliant films. But, like many Scorsese movies, it’s simply remarkable and brilliant. It’s a pure, professionally crafted and chillingly mesmerizing thriller, reminiscent even to the days of Hitchcock. This is an eye-popping movie ride that needs to be experienced.

Video ****

As I implied earlier, the official arrival of Cape Fear on DVD was worth every single day since I got my first DVD player. Up until now, I had never been able to see the movie in its widescreen format, and watching it in that format was a treat all in itself. Universal’s video transfer is one for the time capsule, making this by far the single best transfer of any Scorsese film available in the format. The picture is as sharp as sharp can get, frankly, with crisp images throughout and sharp colorization as well. Many scenes take place in dark settings, which turn up tremendously well, too. This is one movie that merits an invigorating visual look to it, and the DVD transfer does it justice all the way.

Audio ****

I simply cannot rave enough about the superb sound quality that the disc for Cape Fear has been issued. Presented in a superior THX mode, the 5.1 presentation is nothing short of stunning. A bright shining example of the quality of the sound is how thunderous Elmer Bernstein’s chilling music score is presented, right from the opening credit sequence. The heart-pounding climax of the movie pays off tremendously, where upon sound is caught up on every speaker, at least on my home system, and hopefully on yours, as well.

Features ***1/2

While the only thing missing from this package is a Scorsese commentary track, which would’ve been an extraordinary one, I feel, this is still an unbeatable 2-disc set package from Universal. Disc 2 contains the prime features, including three documentaries; one titled “The Making of Cape Fear”, while the other two are individual featurettes on two sequences in the movie; The Fourth of July Parade and The Houseboat Sequence. Also included are several deleted scenes, a Matte paintings montage, a photograph montage, a series of credit sequences from the late, great Saul Bass, which includes the opening credits from Vertigo, Psycho, Spartacus, and Casino. Also included are some DVD-Rom material and a trailer.


Cape Fear is as relentless and chilling as suspense thrillers get. Both Scorsese’s masterful directing, and the powerful knockout cast make for a brilliant roller coaster ride of the unexpected.