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De Niro Unleashed: Looking Back on ‘Cape Fear’ 30 Years Later

Martin Scorsese wasn’t supposed to remake the 1962 thriller, but when he did, he brought along his longtime muse and infused the story with an overwhelming amount of trademark chaos

Universal Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was supposed to be Steven Spielberg. In 1990, coming off a pair of burnished literary epics (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) and a hit Indiana Jones sequel, the director decided to remake J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller Cape Fear with Robert De Niro in the lead. But then he backed out, stating that the project was “too violent.” A swap was arranged: Spielberg would cede the production to his and De Niro’s old pal Martin Scorsese, suddenly flush from Goodfellas after a decade in director jail; in return, Spielberg reclaimed the rights to Schindler’s List, a passion project he’d previously offered to Scorsese in the late 1980s.

For Spielberg, the end results of the trade were undeniable: an all-time Auteur Twofer in 1993 between the Oscars juggernaut Schindler’s List and the record-setting Jurassic Park, whose production was also made possible by handing off Cape Fear. As for Scorsese, while Cape Fear broke through as the highest-grossing movie of his career to date, it was not seen as an unqualified triumph. In fact, the suspicion amongst even his greatest champions was that its glossy, gory contents represented a form of selling out. “As I look at this $35 million movie with big stars, special effects, and production values, I wonder if it represents a bad omen from the finest director now at work,” wrote Roger Ebert, whose sentiments were echoed even more skeptically by Sight and Sound’s J. Hoberman: “More than a critic’s darling, Scorsese is a national treasure,” Hoberman opined. “We need him. He needs a hit. Cape Fear is a semi-sacrifice to that faith.”

It is, of course, fun to imagine what Spielberg’s Cape Fear would have looked like, and whether a filmmaker renowned for his populist impulses would have gotten a warmer reception churning out a buttery-popcorn thriller. Actually, the movie Spielberg did release in 1991, Hook, could be said to be his Cape Fear: a sentimental character study of a middle-aged man who’s taken his family for granted and has to be taught a lesson in responsibility by a shady adversary from his past. There’s even a final showdown on a boat. What surely drew Spielberg to Thompson’s original film, itself adapted from John D. MacDonald’s 1957 suspense novel The Executioners, was its tale of a suburban family under siege—a setup the director had used over and over again in the 1980s. Spielberg’s genius was always in capturing the intrusion of the fantastic on the everyday, close encounters with extraterrestrials, poltergeists, gremlins, and other marauding forces challenging the stability of the domestic unit. And while Cape Fear’s antagonist, Max Cady, was very much human—an ex-con making a beeline for the lawyer who helped convict him—he also represented an opportunity for Spielberg to transfer his vision of insatiable, predatory villains (the truck in Duel; the shark in Jaws) into a flesh-and-blood vessel.

The extreme violence in Wesley Strick’s screenplay—throat slashings, stabbings, and a character burned alive—that threw Spielberg for a loop placed Cape Fear 2.0 in Quentin Tarantino’s ’90s. But the way that the screenplay complicates the Manichaean morality of its black-and-white predecessor is what ultimately kept Spielberg at bay. Strick’s conception of a Cape Fear with plenty of sin to go around was simply a better fit for Scorsese, who used it to fill out his rogues’ gallery of obsessive, magnetic antiheroes.

Thompson’s Cape Fear (currently streaming on Criterion Channel) is a slick, atmospheric piece of work—a superior early-’60s genre piece made under the sign of Alfred Hitchcock and featuring evocative waterfront locations. (The title refers to a headland off the coast of North Carolina.) It’s also sociopolitically suggestive in the extreme, with Max Cady as a rapist hiding behind the law, crowing about his civil liberties as he encroaches on the Bowdens’ private property and makes passes at his enemy’s underage daughter. “People think I have an interesting walk,” Robert Mitchum once quipped, “but I’m just trying to hold my gut in.” All self-deprecation aside, few actors could use their body so deftly to create a character, and Cape Fear showcases Mitchum’s sinewy minimalism. His Max Cady slouches and stretches out like he owns whatever place he enters, including police interrogation rooms; when strip-searched, he doesn’t hold anything in but lets his lanky physique hang out. Like the malevolent preacher Mitchum played a few years earlier in Night of the Hunter, Cady’s creepiness is so overt—and so in contrast to Gregory Peck’s upstanding posture and manner as the put-upon attorney Sam Bowden— that the audience’s dread becomes mixed with excitement. He’s the most enjoyable thing on-screen, but he’s never, ever sympathetic; even though Mitchum patented cool like few other actors of his era, he didn’t confuse it with evil.

By casting De Niro as Cady, Scorsese not only evoked the spectre of the pair’s previous collaborations—a lineup of psychopaths from Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta to Rupert Pupkin—but he also tapped the same vein of audience manipulation and complicity that Stanley Kubrick had by siccing Jack Nicholson on the wife and kids in The Shining. Some actors are just impossible to hate, even when their skills are being used in the service of hatefulness. De Niro—even more jacked up than in Raging Bull, slathered in fake sweat and tattoos and boasting a Southern accent somewhere in the vicinity of Foghorn Leghorn—swaps out Mitchum’s plausible monstrosity for something feral, grotesque, and hilarious. He delivers some of the wildest acting of his career—enough to earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, which he subsequently lost to a subtler but similarly scene-chewing performance by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs.

Like Hannibal Lecter, Max Cady’s insidious charisma has the power to demagnetize the audience’s moral compass. In what’s probably Cape Fear’s signature scene, Max—who has not yet made his presence and intentions known to Nick Nolte’s Sam, reimagined here not as a prosecutor but a former advocate who buried exculpatory evidence—plunks himself down at the multiplex in front of the Bowdens and ruins their viewing of Problem Child with howls of theatrical laughter. It’s obnoxious, sure, but because it’s De Niro, it’s a virtuosic display of obnoxiousness. That braying laughter sets a startling, seriocomic tone that Scorsese plays with both purposefully and recklessly for the rest of the film—first daring us to snicker at his own irreverent approach to old-fashioned melodrama, and then again to still feel scandalized and brutalized despite all that wild, daredevil moviemaking energy.

It’s not enough to say that Scorsese’s take on Cape Fear is stylish. It’s more like a guy trying to pile as much style as possible to see if the foundation will hold or collapse under the weight, at which point you’d expect him to keep whipping the camera through the wreckage. The most seismic impact comes courtesy of Bernard Herrmann’s blaring score, repurposed (and reorchestrated by Elmer Bernstein) from the 1962 film in a way that deepens its ominous, Gothic sense of portent. In another Hitchcock connection, Scorsese uses the music over titles designed by Psycho’s credit maestro Saul Bass, including a shot of a hovering hawk that’s pregnant with predatory subtext. More than any Scorsese movie of the ’90s, Cape Fear feels anxious, jittery, on the verge of splitting apart; some sequences have the nervy, jagged energy of Oliver Stone. Freddie Francis’s cinematography is awash in electric, expressionistic streaks of color, which feel aligned—strategically, and also unsettlingly—with Max’s character. Perched on the fence outside the Bowdens’ sprawling McMansion, De Niro is seen silhouetted against popping Fourth of July fireworks—an All-American peeping tom enjoying the view.

The running joke is that Max, who’s spent over a decade in prison, is using his family’s inheritance to indulge in an off-the-rack flamboyance that rubs his freedom in Sam’s face. (He dresses like a candy-colored dandy, topping off his most garish getups with a jaunty beret.) The contrast between Max’s appearance and his backwoods heritage is made even funnier by the fact that Nolte—who’d mostly been cast as a roughneck at this point in his career—plays the lawyer as a model of buttoned-down, upper-middle-class restraint. In the original, the audience is fully behind Peck’s Sam as he gears up to protect his loved ones from a bad man with a grudge; here, Sam’s barely tamped-down smarminess is insinuated from the beginning. He keeps getting terser and less sympathetic, in sync with his own guilty conscience. He recognizes that his own dereliction of duty, while not equal to his ex-client’s rap sheet, at least exists on the same continuum of wrongdoing. And he hates himself for it.

From Mean Streets to Raging Bull to Silence, guilt is the lifeblood of Scorsese’s cinema, and Sam is a man who feels it from all angles: not only in his transgressions against Max Cady, but also in infidelities against his wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), and his overprotective, quasi-incestuous fixation on his teenage daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). It’s in the female characters that Scorsese veers furthest from his inspiration, transforming the bland bystanders of the original into active, seething participants in the hothouse drama. An image of Max sitting on a fence in the family’s yard is shot from Leigh’s perspective with the humidity of a wet dream. Later, when he comes by the house (without introducing himself), Lange plays her character’s suspicion and disgust with a barely suppressed desirous edge. And the Oscar-nominated Lewis throws herself fully into a subplot about Dani’s ripening sexuality, an irresistible force in search of an immovable object. She holds her own with De Niro in a lurid, uncomfortable seduction scene set against the exaggerated backdrop of a high school play’s fairy-tale set. The sequence is all about Max exulting in his own bizarro sensual power over an inexperienced teenager, and Scorsese drags out the bad vibes until they become excruciating. De Niro’s abrupt, mumbled exit comes at once as a relief and a twist of the knife as Lewis crumples into tears.

Where Cape Fear either spins out of control or explodes into lurid, no-holds-barred brilliance is in the escalating shows of hostility between the two men. Frustrated by Max’s ability to evade police charges or intimidation by a private eye (Joe Don Baker, chugging Pepto-Bismol), Sam hires some goons to lay into him with tire irons and bicycle chains. Skulking nearby in order to get a front row seat to the beating, he ends up cowering behind a dumpster after Max overwhelms the thugs. He’s a beta male reduced to playing hide-and-seek, denied the vicarious satisfaction of vigilante justice. It’s thus downright hilarious when De Niro’s indestructible shit-kicker pantomimes frailty for a local judge while taking out a restraining order on Sam, and funnier still that his own lawyer is played by Gregory Peck, who’s doing a self-satirical riff on the moral authority he embodied in both Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird. (For symmetry’s sake, Mitchum is on hand as well in a cameo as a sympathetic local cop.)

Because De Niro inhabits Max’s vengeance with such gallows humor, there are moments when Cape Fear almost seems to be treading into parody—a quality picked up and slam-dunked into immortality by the writers of The Simpsons, whose fifth season masterpiece “Cape Feare” stands as perhaps the show’s most dazzling, sustained, single-episode tribute. In the same way that pop musicians often claimed they knew they’d really made it after Weird Al rewrote one of their hits, The Simpsons once served as a bellwether of pop-cultural worthiness, and by essentially re-creating Scorsese’s film bit by bit, “Cape Feare” confirmed how deeply its source material had touched a nerve.

The scene late in Cape Fear when Max unbuckles himself from the bottom of the Bowdens’ station wagon and cleans up in a rest stop bathroom is peak De Niro: He’s sinister, abject, and weirdly narcissistic all at once, slicking his long hair back with engine grease. In the film’s home stretch, the character becomes a shape-shifter, impersonating the Bowdens’ Hispanic maid in order to murder Baker’s investigator (a shock reveal pitched halfway between comedy and horror) and finally infiltrating their houseboat as a fallen, avenging angel, stripped to the waist and babbling in tongues. Is it too much? Probably, and there’s something about Cape Fear’s melodramatic, rain-filled climax that justifies Ebert and Hoberman’s carping that Scorsese was either defeated by or deferential to expectations of scale; as extreme and eccentric as his earlier thrillers had been, they’d never stooped to this kind of climax. But the artist in Scorsese still bleeds through: The shot of Nolte’s Sam gazing at his bloody hands after dispatching his rival is a brilliantly Catholic sight gag—the everyman catching himself red-handed. Sam rubs his hands clean, but the stain—of Max Cady, and his own transgressions—won’t come out in the wash.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.