Cape Fear (1991 film)

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Cape Fear
Theatrical release poster by John Alvin
Directed byMartin Scorsese
Screenplay byWesley Strick
Based on
Produced byBarbara De Fina
CinematographyFreddie Francis
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
Music by
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • November 15, 1991 (1991-11-15)
Running time
128 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$35 million
Box office$182.3 million

Cape Fear is a 1991 American psychological thriller film directed by Martin Scorsese. It is a remake of the 1962 film of the same title, which was based on the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. The film stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Joe Don Baker, and Juliette Lewis. Robert Mitchum has a small role in the film, while Gregory Peck (in his final theatrical film role) and Martin Balsam make cameo appearances, all three having starred in the original film.[2]

The film tells the story of a convicted violent rapist who, by using his newfound knowledge of the law and its numerous loopholes, seeks vengeance against a former public defender whom he blames for his 14-year imprisonment due to purposefully faulty defense tactics used during his trial.

Cape Fear marks the seventh collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro. The film was a commercial success and received generally positive reviews from critics. It was nominated for several awards, including the Oscars and Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Lewis).


Fourteen years ago, Max Cady was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the rape and battery of a 16-year-old girl. His lawyer Sam Bowden was appalled by Cady's crime and hid evidence of the victim's promiscuity, which might have reduced Max's sentence or even secure his acquittal. Sam assumes that Max, who was illiterate during his trial, is unaware of the shoddy defense he received. However, unbeknownst to Sam, Max is an intelligent and single-minded psychopath. While in prison, Max taught himself to read, studied law, and even attempted several unsuccessful appeals.

After finishing his sentence, Max tracks down Sam, who resides in New Essex, North Carolina, with his wife Leigh and 15-year-old daughter Danielle ("Danny").

Max begins to stalk and terrorize the family. After the family dog is poisoned, Sam tries to have Max arrested, but Lieutenant Elgart reminds him that there is no evidence. Max crosses paths with Lori Davis, a courthouse clerk who has a crush on Sam. He rapes, disfigures, and nearly beats her to death. Lori refuses to press charges out of fear that their ongoing flirtation will become public. Dismissing Elgart's implicit suggestion to use his family as bait and excuse for a justifiable homicide, Sam hires private investigator Claude Kersek to follow Max.

Impersonating her new drama teacher, Max approaches Danny and seduces her. When he becomes aware of it, a desperate Sam agrees with Kersek to have Max beaten up. He gives Max a final warning, which Max secretly records.

Kersek's hired thugs ambush Max; however, Max overpowers and viciously beats them. Max uses Sam's recorded threats and exaggerates his injuries to file for a restraining order against Sam. Max's lawyer petitions the ABA Ethics Committee for Sam's disbarment, triggering a two-day emergency meeting in Raleigh.

Anticipating Max's intention to strike while Sam is away, Kersek and Sam fake his departure. They wait in the Bowden house for Max to break in to shoot him in self-defense. However, Max sneaks in and kills the housekeeper Graciela. Donning her clothes, he ambushes and kills Kersek. Horrified after discovering the bodies, the Bowdens flee to their houseboat docked upstate along the Cape Fear River, not knowing Max has hidden under their car and eventually tracks down their houseboat.

On the boat, Max incapacitates Sam and prepares to rape Leigh and Danny in front of him. Danny sets him on fire with hidden lighter fluid, causing him to jump off the boat. Max clings to a rope and pulls himself back on board. As the boat is rocked by a violent thunderstorm, a badly burned Max confronts Sam, putting him on a mock trial for his deliberate negligence 14 years ago. Swatting away Sam's defense, Max berates and beats him for failing to do his duty as a lawyer, sentencing him "to the ninth circle of hell".

The storm knocks Max off his feet, allowing Sam to gain the upper hand. As the women jump off the boat and swim to shore, Sam cuffs Max to the boat with his own handcuff. When the boat hits a rock and is destroyed, the fight continues on the shore. A tide carries Max away and he drowns while speaking in tongues and singing the hymn "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand." Sam washes the blood from his hands and joins the traumatized Leigh and Danny. In narration, an adult Danny states that, while the family was irreparably changed by the experience, they never talked about it again.



The film's screenplay was adapted by Wesley Strick from the original screenplay by James R. Webb, which was based on the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald.

Originally developed by Steven Spielberg, he eventually decided it was too violent and traded it to Scorsese in exchange for Schindler's List, which Scorsese had decided not to make. Scorsese agreed to direct Cape Fear out of gratitude, as Universal had supported the director during the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ.[3] Although Spielberg stayed on as a producer through his company Amblin Entertainment, he chose not to be credited personally on the finished film.[4]

Although Scorsese had previously worked with Nolte in New York Stories (1989), he originally envisioned Harrison Ford in the role of Sam Bowden. However, Ford was only interested in playing Max Cady. Nolte, who by contrast was more interested in playing Bowden, convinced Scorsese to cast him instead. Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon both auditioned for the part of Danielle Bowden and Spielberg reportedly wanted Bill Murray to play Cady.[5][6]

Nolte lost weight for the film while De Niro gained muscle; this ensured that De Niro, who was noticeably shorter than Nolte, still came across as physically threatening on screen.

The work of Alfred Hitchcock was a significant influence on the style of Cape Fear. As with the 1962 film, where director J. Lee Thompson specifically acknowledged Hitchcock's influence and employed Bernard Herrmann to write the score, Scorsese also adopted Hitchcock's style, using unusual camera angles, lighting, and editing techniques. The opening credits were designed by Saul Bass, a frequent collaborator of Hitchcock, and the link to Hitchcock was further cemented by the reuse of Herrmann's original score, albeit reworked by Elmer Bernstein.[7] Portions of Bass's title sequences were reused from the unreleased ending to his film Phase IV.


Box office[edit]

Cape Fear collected $10.5 million during its opening weekend, ranking in first place at the box office, beating out Curly Sue.[8] It would be overtaken by The Addams Family a week later, but still made another $10 million while staying ahead of Beauty and the Beast.[9] The film was a box-office success, making $182,291,969 worldwide[10] on a $35-million budget.

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 75% based on 57 reviews, with an average score of 6.8/10. The site's critics consensus reads: "Smart and stylish, Cape Fear is a gleefully mainstream shocker from Martin Scorsese, with a terrifying Robert De Niro performance."[11] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 73 out of 100, based on 9 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[12] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[13]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars, commenting:

Cape Fear is impressive moviemaking, showing Scorsese as a master of a traditional Hollywood genre who is able to mold it to his own themes and obsessions. But as I look at this $35 million movie with big stars, special effects and production values, I wonder whether it represents a good omen from the finest director now at work.[14]

Awards and honors[edit]

Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards[15] Best Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[16] Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Juliette Lewis Nominated
BAFTA Awards[17] Best Cinematography Freddie Francis Nominated
Best Editing Thelma Schoonmaker Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival[18] Golden Berlin Bear Martin Scorsese Nominated
BMI Film Music Awards Elmer Bernstein Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards[19] Best Director Martin Scorsese Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Nominated
Most Promising Actress Won
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Jupiter Awards Best International Actor Won
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Won
MTV Movie Awards[20] Best Kiss Nominated
Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Male Performance Nominated
Best Villain Nominated
National Society of Film Critics Awards[21] Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis 2nd place
New York Film Critics Circle Awards[22] Best Supporting Actress 2nd place
Best Cinematographer Freddie Francis 2nd place

In popular culture[edit]

The film was parodied in the 1993 Simpsons episode "Cape Feare", with Sideshow Bob in the role of Cady. They also pay homage to another Robert Mitchum film The Night of the Hunter in which Sideshow Bob's knuckles (scaled down for a cartoon character with one fewer finger on each hand) say "Luv" (Love) and "Hāt" (Hate, with the diacritical mark providing the long vowel). This parody was itself the basis for Anne Washburn's play Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which imagines post-apocalyptic theatre troupes attempting to recreate the episode, and by extension the two films and the novel.

In the 2003 film Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, the Seamus O'Grady prison introduction scene is a direct reference to Max Cady's prison-set intro.[23]

The film was parodied as Cape Munster in the premiere episode of The Ben Stiller Show, with Ben Stiller playing an adult Eddie Munster.[24][25][26]

The film was the inspiration for professional wrestler Dan Spivey's character Waylon Mercy in the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) in 1995, and subsequently for professional wrestler Bray Wyatt's original The Wyatt Family character in WWE in 2013.[27]

Seinfeld also parodied the film with the 1998 episode "The Bookstore".[28]

Television adaptation[edit]

A television adaptation was announced on November 21, 2023, with several networks in a bidding war to air it. Spielberg and Scorsese are signed on as executive producers while the showrunner is Nick Antosca.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cape Fear (18)". British Board of Film Classification. November 27, 1991. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  2. ^ Thompson, Kirsten (2005). "Chapter 6: Cape Fear and Trembling: Familial Dread". In Stam, Robert; Raengo, Alessandra (eds.). Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 126–147. ISBN 0631230556.
  3. ^ "Tom Pollock Interview" (PDF). October 22, 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 3, 2021. Retrieved January 11, 2022.
  4. ^ Maslin, Janet (November 10, 1991). "FILM; Martin Scorsese Ventures Back To 'Cape Fear'". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Cormier, Roger (November 16, 2016). "15 Intense Facts About Cape Fear". Mental Floss. Retrieved June 2, 2018.
  6. ^ "This Ford's not for crossing". The Irish Times. August 30, 1997.
  7. ^ "Cape Fear, film score". AllMusic.
  8. ^ "'Cape Fear' debuts at No. 1". The Sacramento Bee. November 19, 1991. p. 46. Archived from the original on November 27, 2022. Retrieved November 27, 2022 – via Open access icon
  9. ^ Horn, John (November 26, 1991). "'Addams Family' scares up huge box office". The Associated Press. The Boston Globe. p. 29. Archived from the original on November 27, 2022. Retrieved November 27, 2022 – via Open access icon
  10. ^ "Cape Fear (1991)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 24, 2010.
  11. ^ "Cape Fear (1991)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
  12. ^ "Cape Fear Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  13. ^ "CinemaScore".
  14. ^ "Cape Fear". November 13, 1991.
  15. ^ "64th Academy Awards". Retrieved June 28, 2023.
  16. ^ "Winners and Nominees 1992". Retrieved June 28, 2023.
  17. ^ "Film in 1993". Retrieved June 27, 2023.
  18. ^ "Berlinale: 1992 Programme". Archived from the original on May 8, 2005. Retrieved May 22, 2011.
  19. ^ "1991 - Winners of the 4th Annual Chicago Film Critics Awards". January 2013. Retrieved June 28, 2023.
  20. ^ "1992 MTV Movie Awards". MTV. Archived from the original on April 23, 2008. Retrieved June 28, 2023.
  21. ^ Fox, David J. (January 6, 1992). "'Sweet' Takes Honors From Film Critics". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 27, 2023.
  22. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 18, 1991). "Film Critics Honor 'Silence of Lambs'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2023.
  23. ^ Mitchell, Elvis (June 27, 2003). "Film Review; The Strained Family Ties Of Three Athletic Angels". The New York Times. Retrieved June 30, 2013. Seamus O'Grady (Justin Theroux), a color Xerox of Max Cady from Cape Fear
  24. ^ Jicha, Tom (September 26, 1992). "Too Much TV as a Kid Was Good for Ben Stiller". Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved June 4, 2021.
  25. ^ "'Ben Stiller Show' may become best-kept secret on TV". Orange County Register. October 7, 1992. Archived from the original on June 27, 2023. Retrieved June 4, 2021 – via The Baltimore Sun.
  26. ^ King, Susan (December 4, 2003). "A two-disc treasure for 'Pirates' lovers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 4, 2021.
  27. ^ Scharf, Kyle (January 29, 2022). "The Ballad of Waylon Mercy".
  28. ^ "The Bookstore". Seinfeld. Season 9. Episode 17. April 9, 1998. NBC.
  29. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (November 21, 2023). "'Cape Fear' Series From Nick Antosca, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese & UCP Heats Up TV Marketplace". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 21, 2023.


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