Cape Fear is a 1991 thriller about a newly-released criminal seeking revenge against the lawyer that he feels failed to defend him. A box office and critical success, it was highly-praised for its performances, including one by a young actress about to become a huge star.
Remakes are nothing new in movies, and rarely do they ever seem to be quite as good as what inspired them, yet every so often, one comes along that actually exceeds the original and becomes the larger influence. With Cape Fear, a reimagining of the original 1962 thriller of the same name, it does just this, invoking much from the first but giving it a twist that greatly sets it apart.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, the most significant change is altering the protagonist from the straight as an arrow do-gooder of the 60s (played by Gregory Peck) and giving him flaws the modern cinema viewer can more empathize with, therefore making this a bit darker. The villain is never as clear-cut as we might suspect, though to be sure, Scorsese keeps his interpretation of Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro) well on the fringes of lunacy. The film is far better in the beginning and middle than its slightly contrived needless action ending that slips away from the great character study it so intricately weaves up-to-then, turning Cady into a super-being of sorts that plays upon the popular serial killer tropes of the era. This weakens what to that point is a terrific psychological thriller, but can’t ruin the film as a whole, which is an exceptionally-crafted and very well-acted movie.
The story tells how fourteen years earlier, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), a small town lawyer, purposefully suppressed evidence in the assault and rape case of Max Cady, an uneducated criminal who in prison rigorously studies law and upon release, sets out to intimidate Bowden and take revenge on the man who ruined his life. He does this by stalking and menacing his family in creative and despicable ways.
That begins with the family dog, which Cady poisons before moving on to a woman named Lori Davis (Illeana Douglas), a colleague of Bowden’s with whom he might be having an affair, sexually attacking her at her home so viciously that she ends up in the hospital but refuses to talk about it in fear of exposing Bowden to their relationship. Local police Lieutenant Elgar (Robert Mitchum, who played Cady in the original film) takes the case but is at a loss as no evidence is found involving the dog and without testimony from Davis, there is nothing police can do. Bowden, feeling trapped, hires a private investigator (Joe Don Baker) to track Cady down and put some pressure on him, which fails spectacularly.
Enter Bowden’s teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis), a somewhat rebellious girl attracted to danger and most importantly in the first stages of a sexual awakening, something that hints further at her own father’s possible weaknesses in his awkward comments that mark an obvious awareness of her changing body. She is starved for a quality father figure, something Cady recognizes. Using this vulnerability, he poses as the new drama teacher at her school and it’s here where we must FREEZE THAT FRAME:
Cady, an expert at manipulation, has an easy target with the curious young girl and with false sentiment, questions her father’s being to have her gain trust in him. Cady convinces Danielle men are weak and must pass through a hell to reach their paradise, including her father. He feeds on her need to be loved, to feel any kind of trust and support, to be noticed for what she is as a person and a young woman. Cady knows she is sexually curious and this is the path he takes in spoiling her.
In a sensational shot, Cady is framed off to the right side, casting a long dark shadow toward Danielle, as if it is reaching out to her, lulling her toward him, an expanding void soon to consume her. He preys on the naive teenager’s sense of curiosity both intimate and sexual, asking, when the time is right, if he might put his arm around her. When he gains permission though, he doesn’t simply hold the girl, but instead touches her face and shockingly, gently inserts his thumb into her mouth, which she takes with obvious arousal, delicately wrapping her hands around his one hand, eyeing him with hope of his approval. The metaphor is clear.
She continues to caress his skin, coyly shirking with shyness, but this is only indication that the wall is breached and so Cady leans in and aggressively kisses her, to which she accepts, having learned no boundaries. It’s a distressing image.
The sequence is about violation and is meant to be uncomfortable, but it holds tremendous significance in the story, and is in fact, the cornerstone of why the third act works at all, especially given what Danielle eventually does to Cady. This moment gives weight to the spoken but unseen history of Cady the rapist, and while the attack on Lori Davis helps to better define him as a monster, it is this critical action that cements it. Physical abuse is naturally horrific to watch and yet this emotional assault on Danielle has even more impact. We naturally feel protective of children, and while Danielle is rightfully exploring her own coming maturity, her loss of innocence here is frightening to watch, and if there were any sympathies earned by Cady up to this point, they are purposefully shed and allow us to now move forward wanting him to be struck down, and struck down with rage.
Cape Fear is a powerful thriller that works best in it’s first two acts, with De Niro and Nolte a great pair of opposites, but it is the enduring presence of Lewis’ Danielle that binds this movies so well, creating a character that becomes the keystone to its success. An early role for the actress, it has come to define her start in the business. This moment is one that stays with viewers long after ward, playing on the terror of a sexual predator. Scorsese builds this scene with remarkable tension, stripping away the music and carefully placing the actors on the far sides of their frames until drawing them in tightly into a feircely unnerving act that stains our hearts and paints Cady as one of the most vile villains in modern film.