The brutal, Max Cady is released from prison after doing 14 years for rape. He seeks out his former lawyer -- to make him pay for burying a report, a report that would have saved his case: He will make him ‘learn about loss.’
NOMINATED for 2 OSCARS: Best Actor (DeNiro), Best Supporting Actress (Lewis)
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Martin Scorsese followed up his classic, gangster flick “Goodfellas” with this tense, suspenseful thriller. He was in a mood to experiment. The camera moves quickly in pans and close ups – there is quick cutting and unnatural use of colour and negative imagery. It’s a style of filmmaking that calls attention to itself. Sometimes it works, as in the classic, climactic houseboat scene. And sometimes it doesn’t: a quick-flash pan in an office from one character to another pops the proverbial eyebrow when what we’re used to is a simple cut from character to character.
Scorsese pulls this quick-flourish pan in the office scene between Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and P.I. Kersek (Joe Don Baker). If the scene were anything more than an interlude, a set up, it might work. But the scene isn’t that important and it doesn’t rate star treatment – think of Rembrandt saving his best strokes for the main subject and letting the background fade into gloom – too much style upstages substance, stealing focus and energy from crucial scenes. If he wanted a little movement at this point he might have sent the two men for a walk, or put them on a putting green.
That said ‘Cape Fear’ is a thrilling, brutal nightmare with a cast that is to die for. Max Cady (De Niro) is released from prison. He’s spent 14 years in the pen for rape. He’s guilty as sin except that his lawyer, Bowden, buried a report that proved the victim was promiscuous. Cady wants revenge.
The Bowden family has some serious issues: Bowden’s wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange) harbours resentment toward Sam for a past infidelity; their daughter, Danni (Juliette Lewis) is on the cusp of teen-age, hormonal, melt down. On top of it Sam has a serious flirt going with a colleague at work. Max exploits all of this.
He hits town all smiles – hassles the family at the cinema – follows them to a soda shop. Then one evening they see him perched on a wall on the edge of their property. He confronts Sam in a parking lot – “you’re gonna learn about loss.” Sam tries to buy him off but Cady isn’t having it. Sam goes to the cops. (The original Cape Fear, 1962, starred Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. In this version Mitchum plays a police detective and Peck is an attorney.) The police can’t do anything until a crime is committed, so Sam hires Kersek, a private eye.
Kersek tries to muscle Cady but Max has spent his pen-time well -- learning to read, studying the law, the trial – he knows his rights. Kersek offers to bring in three thugs to beat on Cady but Sam refuses – he’s a lawyer, he can’t do anything unlawful. And yet the story reminds us time and again he’s already dirty: he buried Cady’s report; he cheated on his wife; he has a female squash partner he’s a little too fond of.
The script torques up the tension. Cady puts some moves on young Danni -- Juliette Lewis seems possessed with acting genius. She pulls off a romantic scene with De Niro that is stunning – it’s like watching Eve kiss the Serpent. Sam tells Kersek to bring in the thugs; but the plan backfires and Cady beats off his attackers after a violent fight. The next day he hauls Sam into court for uttering threats. It is Sam who’s hit with a restraining order and faces disbarment.
Kersek and Sam lay a trap: they will lure Cady into the family home where he can be caught or killed. Once again Cady turns the tables. After a murderous rampage the family flees their home by car to Cape Fear where they keep their houseboat. Cady has them where he wants them now -- on the river. In a sequence that must rank with the greats, Cady leads Sam Bowden, Leigh and Danni to the brink of hell and extinction. This is stupendous movie making.
Having seen this film, if Robert McKee is correct and stories are ‘equipment for living’ , you will be well equipped for that fateful day when the sky falls, the levee breaks, evil has you by the throat and your tiny craft spins out of control on the magnificent white water of ‘Cape Fear’.