Cape Fear – Martin Scorsese – 1991


I really love 90’s cool. And Cape Fear is a 90’s cool movie. The clothes, the cars, the editing—the film reeks of the nineties in the best possible way. The film delights in it’s movie-ness in what might be the most fun of Scorsese’s genre exercises. Nick Nolte is cast against type as a tied-down lawyer who suppressed evidence in order to get his violent defendant convicted. Now, Max Cady has returned to torment him.

Cape fear is not by any means heady material, and that is really what makes it so much fun. Scorsese gives the actors room to play these types and the scenes are menacing and humorous. DeNiro’s Cady is a black joke from another dimension, both grotesquely charming and chillingly threatening, Cady is the blackest kind of vengeance, a sick man done wrong.

Nolte is hilarious here as the incompetent nincompoop who hasn’t an idea how to protect his family. Usually, Nolte is the baddest of the badasses in whatever film he’s in, but by casting him as the put upon, that makes Cady so much bigger. Cady exploits the legal system by staying on its boundaries as he intimidates Nolte and his family. Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis are each startling in their respective turns as Nolte’s wife and daughter, innocents caught up in the danger of his hypocritical and ineffectual profession and the lies that have come back to haunt him.

Should one defend a man who is known to be violent? Nolte suppresses the fact that the woman Cady was alleged to have raped had a promiscuous past. Scorsese juggles with the viewer’s morals about this for a moment, until a truly repugnant scene between DeNiro and Lewis. This scene alone takes this film up into the upper-echelons of villainous perversion. The scene actually reminds me of the scene with Harvey Keitel and Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver. Both scenes are cruel and hateful men taking advantage of an innocent. This is pure exploitation and Scorsese knows it, but he’s just warming the audience for the roller-coaster finish on the houseboat.

This scene is so expertly staged I get all worked up every time I see it. I love that the father is really a useless cad, and we are left to the storm and the ingenuity of innocence soiled to save the family from this monster. I love that Jessica Lange tries to give herself to Cady to save her daughter’s sanctity. The film really ramps up and never lets go.

Lawyers, law enforcement, private detectives and even hired goons prove useless against Cady. These institutions are marginalized and often made to look comical and to be populated with clowns who have no ability to protect their citizens. Despite being shaded and shaped like a thriller, Cape Fear really delivers the laughs. Not one of Scorsese’s classier efforts, but I’m going to say it is the sweatiest, the creepiest and one of the prototypes, (along with Fatal Attraction), of what would become the classic 90’s thriller. Many other films would attempt to be one or both of these films for the next decade. Bottom line: Drink some beers and laugh as some redneck asshole torments some slick back douchebag lawyer.


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