Top 100 Movies Of The 1990's: #77 Cape Fear
Box Office: $79.1 Million
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Lewis)
Oscar Wins: None
Available To Stream: Showtime, Vudu (for $4)
The closest Martin Scorsese ever came to horror, it's a thrilling yet bizarre viewing experience. Cape Fear doesn't have much of a story to tell. You're just watching one man terrorize a family for 128 minutes. But the overall direction and some brilliant acting really elevate the movie. There is nothing subtle about Cape Fear. This is the movie equivalent of eating fast food but it would be fantastic fast food like Shake Shack.
This was the next movie Scorsese made after Goodfellas. Cape Fear deals with some very intense situations but Scorsese can't seem to take it all that seriously as times. On the boat at the end, Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is kicking Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) in the face. Scorsese can't help himself and throws in cartoon sound effects of someone turning around quick. Cady is also looking at the camera pretending he's in a courtroom. One thing Scorsese does take seriously that while Max Cady is evil incarnate, no one in this movie is purely good.
Nick Nolte is at great as a successful lawyer who is also a lousy husband and in way over his head. Nolte is really good in this but I could also see Michael Douglas in this role. Both actors have the courage to not be likable on screen even when they are playing the supposed "good guy". Jessica Lange is also brilliant (as usual) as Bowden's wife especially in the final scene on the boat.
The performance everyone remembers is De Niro as Max Cady. His work here would be the final Oscar nomination De Niro would get for over twenty years. He wouldn't be nominated again until Silver Linings Playbook. I spoke earlier how Scorsese seemed to be having fun with a lot of this movie but there is one scene where it's not playful at all. It's just terrifying. It's when Max Cady meets Danielle Bowden (Juliette Lewis) at her school. Cady is the bigger character played by the greater actor but Lewis is fantastic in this movie and is another fearless actor in this cast. Look at her work presently in Yellowjackets. She's still very good but here's the end of that scene I was talking about. There aren't many creepier scenes in major motion pictures:
This was the rare box office hit at that time for Scorsese. Cape Fear made more money than Goodfellas and Raging Bull COMBINED. It opened at number one in the weekend it came out and knocked Curly Sue out of the number one spot. It would stay in the top 10 for six weeks. It may have helped that it was a remake of a movie people were familiar with in 1991 or that Scorsese's stock had really risen after the critical admiration he got after Goodfellas came out. But I think it's just easier to promote a simpler movie like Cape Fear.
This is a movie that frustrates me when I look to closely at it. Cady risks everything at the beginning of the movie when he bites Illena Douglas's cheek off. Near the end when Cady rides on the bottom of the car on the way to the boat is so ridiculous, it leans more towards Wily E. Coyote/Road Runner than a psychological thriller for adults. For as brilliant of a criminal mind as we are told Max Cady is, his best friend is sheer luck most of the time.
Compare Cape Fear to more serious work like Silence Of The Lambs which also came out in 1991. That's a movie that takes what is happening around it with a much different tone. That's not to say that Cape Fear isn't doing what it intends to do but those cartoonish elements hold it back from being a truly great film. It sure is entertaining though.
77. Cape Fear
83. Total Recall
84. Quiz Show
87. Men In Black
95. Dirty Work
98. Any Given Sunday