Cape Fear (1991)

Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Juliette Lewis

Among its top ten grossing films in the colorfully named genre “Thriller – Psycho/Stalker/Blank from Hell,” Box Office Mojo places seven of them between 1987 and 1994. Cape Fear is not even the highest grossing film of its ilk from 1991; Sleeping with the Enemy, a Julia Roberts movie in which she flees her control-freak psycho husband, ranks behind only Fatal Attraction in terms of total gross. With apologies to the rest, though, Cape Fear is simply on a different plane than the rest of its peer group. Hitchcock may have died in 1980, but Cape Fear is his final movie. You can see it in Jessica Lange, who was a cool blonde for the ’80s. You can see it in the way Scorsese shoots this movie; it is the kind of mimicking performance that one expects from Tarantino, but Scorsese does it with his camera and not with his blocking or props. The strange angles, the over-the-shoulder shots, the intimidating close-ups all speak to the style of another director entirely. My favorite example is so unobtrusive and mostly unimportant to the film that it shines through. Leigh and Dani are behind Leigh’s desk, Leigh sitting and Dani standing, and the white of the desk rises up and eats, slightly canted, about 1/8 of the screen. I couldn’t tell you what movie it reminds me of precisely – perhaps I was tipped off by Midge at her drawing table in Vertigo –  but it’s undoubtedly Hitchcock. Constant Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s original score is slightly adapted, which helps even more to create a mood. Yet it’s a little hasty to crown this as pure copycatting. The rest of the film’s major technical players, though, are fairly well-removed from the Divine Alfred. Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been Scorsese’s editor of choice for nearly four decades, edited the film. Freddie Francis’ cinematography uses light grays and pale blues to the same sort of effect that he created in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which are a far cry from the richer tones Robert Burks typically used in Hitchcock’s color films. And Scorsese himself is not much like Hitchcock, either stylistically or topically.

As much as the style of Hitchcock is borrowed for this film, the connection between the great director and his most important muse is the one that strikes me especially strong here. De Niro and Scorsese are the supreme actor/director pair of American cinema since the 1970s, and this is their seventh collaboration; the chemistry between the two is as strong here as it is in any of their other movies. De Niro is distinctive from much of the rest of his oeuvre with Scorsese in this movie. I think it’s interesting that where an iconic character like Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas spends most of his time trying to stay out of prison, Max Cady has already been there. His first scenes feature him working out in his tiny jail cell, surrounded by his books and covered in religious tattoos. (Truth and Justice, so say the Cross-borne scales on Cady’s back, weigh against one another equally. One is put in mind of Robert Mitchum’s similar LOVE/HATE tattoos in The Night of the Hunter; Mitchum, of course, played the Cady role in the ’62 version of the film, and has a part as a cop in this one.) The mullet stays a little strange for the entire movie, though I would guess it made at least a little sense in 1991, but the Southern accent starts to grow on you. One forgets that seventeen years earlier, De Niro had come to national prominence doing a Marlon Brando voice in Italian; certainly he was capable of a hick accent that jumps from cartoonish to devilish and back again without a hitch. In some ways it makes De Niro creepier; we know that New Yawker voice he usually has, and this is not it at all. We’re used to De Niro using guns (any gangster movie, plus Taxi Driver) or fists (any gangster movie, plus Raging Bull) to make his point. And he does the same in Cape Fear; the difference is De Niro’s character in this film uses the law as a cudgel against someone who should be able to use the law better than he.

When Cape Fear was originally made in 1962, the threat of sexual harm to a minor was enough to get the film the strongest rating possible. In 1991, that’s the only thing remaining which can lend enough punch to the film’s dosage; we had been inured to the threat of rapists, revenge artists, and crooked lawyers. But the scene in the school basement, where the theater (improbably) is, where Max Cady is waiting all alone for Danielle to come to him after the favorable impression he made on the phone the night before: that’s a haunting scene. Danielle is clearly nervous around her new teacher, who is bold in speech, who wheedles his way into her confidence by talking about the rules and restrictions her parents lay down on her. He talks confidently about Henry Miller, inviting her to think about sexuality with the same sort of looseness. He has marijuana, which is her vice, and he lights up to show her that he’s cool. She takes a puff or two herself, and keeps the joint when he offers it to her. The audience knows too much about Max Cady to be comfortable with the idea of him alone with Dani, knowing what he did to a young woman fourteen years past and knowing what he has done to Lori Davis (Illeana Douglas), a young woman Sam has been on the edge of an affair with. She bites her thumb and plays with her lip incessantly; it’s what a much younger girl than her is likely to do, but that seems equally enticing to Max. Scorsese keeps this scene up as long as it can support itself before Danielle finally realizes who she’s talking to.

Danielle: You’re not going to hurt me, are you?

Max: No, I’m not gonna hurt you at all. There’s no hurting here, Danielle. ‘Tween us, there’s no anger.

In this moment he is nearly convincing, and in some sense he’s not telling her an outright lie; whatever he feels about Sam is a feeling which can be separated from what he feels about Danielle, and in this moment one doesn’t get the sense anymore that he is inches away from raping her. But it’s a lie mixed with truth which is significantly more powerful. Between him and the girl, there is no anger, but between him and the girl’s father, there is, and she would be an extraordinary instrument to hurt him. De Niro is excellent throughout the movie; in a just world, Anthony Hopkins would have won Supporting Actor at the Oscars that year and De Niro would have won Best Actor. This scene should have cemented that win for him, as he plumbs the depths of trust-building within the film and trust-destroying in the audience. Later in the movie De Niro will do many things – on the day where he clung to the body of a jeep for many hours just above the highway, he will rise from the water after having his head set on fire and then scream about how he’s going to put Sam through hell – but he is profoundly threatening in this scene in a way that he fails to be in any other. Max plays with the limits of what is legal frequently, and in frightening ways; he lounges on the Bowdens’ wall amid the fireworks, and makes it a habit to be wherever Sam is, leering at him from behind his sunglasses. But this is doubtless the greatest individual threat to the Bowdens until Max climbs onto the houseboat and begins his reign of terror, and the one that requires the most nuanced performance Max Cady is capable of giving.

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