Cape Fear (1991 film)

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Cape Fear
Cape fear 91.jpg
Theatrical release poster by John Alvin
Directed byMartin Scorsese
Screenplay byWesley Strick
Based on
Produced byBarbara De Fina
CinematographyFreddie Francis
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
Music byBernard Herrmann
Elmer Bernstein (adaptation)
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 as a remake of the 1962 film of the same name which was based on John D. MacDonald's 1957 novel, The Executioners. It stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Joe Don Baker and Juliette Lewis. Robert Mitchum plays a small role in the film, while Gregory Peck (in his final theatrical film role) and Martin Balsam cameo; all three starred in the original film.[2]

The film tells the story of a convicted violent statutory rapist, who, mostly 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 because of the 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 garnered positive reviews, receiving Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Lewis).


Sam Bowden is a lawyer living in North Carolina with his wife Leigh and teenage daughter Danielle. Max Cady, a former client of his, is released from prison after 14 years. Cady was tried for statutory rape and battery of a 16-year-old girl and, appalled by the attack, Sam buried evidence of the victim's promiscuity and Cady's unawareness of her actual age, which might have unfairly lessened Cady's sentence or even secured his acquittal.

Bowden believes that Cady, who was illiterate at the time of his conviction, remains unaware of his purposefully botched defense. Unbeknownst to him, however, his former client is a naturally intelligent and single-minded psychopath; he learned how to read and studied law in prison, and even unsuccessfully appealed his own conviction several times. He tracks Sam down and begins to terrorize the Bowden family; he lurks near the property and the family dog is mysteriously killed. Sam attempts to have Cady arrested but the police have no evidence of a crime. Cady intentionally crosses paths in a bar with County Courthouse clerk Lori, who is in love with Sam, then rapes and beats her nearly to death. Despite Sam's advice, she refuses to press charges out of fear that their ongoing platonic flirtation becomes public, as well as unwillingness to be cross-examined and humiliated by her own colleagues. Sam hires a private investigator, Kersek, to follow Cady.

Cady approaches Danielle by impersonating her new drama teacher and feigning an unorthodox interest in her teenage angst. He lures her to the school theater, shares a joint with her, manipulates her libido and attraction to him and kisses her. Her parents find the joint in her schoolbook, and Danielle's coyness about the extent of Cady's seduction drives Sam to the point of desperation. He then agrees to Kersek's plan, which he had dismissed earlier, to have Cady beaten up. He also gives Cady a final warning, which Cady secretly tapes with a hidden recorder. Kersek's three hired thugs accost and beat Cady as Sam watches from afar, but Cady turns the tide on his attackers and viciously beats them instead. Cady then uses the recording of Sam's threat and an exaggerated display of his own injuries to file for a restraining order against Sam. Lee Heller (Cady's lawyer) also petitions the ABA Ethics Committee for Sam's disbarment, thereby triggering a two-day emergency meeting in Raleigh.

Kersek anticipates Cady's intention to enter the Bowden house while Sam is in Raleigh; the family fakes Sam's departure and hides in the house, hoping that Cady will break in, so that he can be shot in self-defense. Cady kills the Bowden's housekeeper Graciela and dons her clothing before murdering Kersek by garroting him with a piano wire and shooting him with his own pistol. Horrified after discovering the bodies, Sam, Leigh, and Danielle flee to their houseboat docked upstate along the Cape Fear River.

Cady, who has followed the family, attacks Sam and prepares to rape Leigh and Danielle while making Sam watch. Danielle sprays Cady with lighter fluid as he lights a cigar, engulfing him in flames and causing him to jump off the boat. However, Cady clings to a rope and pulls himself back on board. As the boat is rocked by a violent thunderstorm, a badly burned and deranged Cady confronts Sam, putting him on a mock trial for his deliberate negligence 14 years ago. Despite Sam's insistence that Cady bragged about beating two prior rape charges and that his crime was too heinous for the promiscuity report to be taken into account, Cady berates him for failing to do his duty as a lawyer.

The storm eventually knocks Cady off his feet, allowing Sam to gain the upper hand once the women jump off the boat and make it to shore. Sam uses Cady's handcuffs to shackle Cady to the boat. When the boat hits a rock and is destroyed, the fight continues on shore, but a raging tide carries Cady away and he drowns speaking in tongues and singing the hymn "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand". Sam washes the blood from his hands before he rejoins Leigh and Danielle, who realizes that things will never be the same again for them.



The film was adapted by Wesley Strick from the original screenplay by James R. Webb, which was an adaptation from the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald.

It was originally developed by Steven Spielberg, who eventually decided it was too violent and traded it to Scorsese to get back Schindler's List, which Scorsese had decided not to make. Scorsese eventually agreed to do Cape Fear because Universal did support The Last Temptation of Christ.[3] Spielberg stayed on as a producer, through his Amblin Entertainment, but chose not to be credited personally on the finished film.[4]

Despite having worked with Nolte in New York Stories (1989), Scorsese did not have him in mind to portray Sam Bowden and wanted Harrison Ford to play the part instead. Ford, however, agreed to do the film only if he was going to portray Max Cady. Nolte, who was interested in portraying Bowden, managed to convince Scorsese to cast him for the part. In addition, Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon both auditioned for the part of Danielle Bowden and Spielberg reportedly wanted Bill Murray to portray Cady.[5]

The 6'0" Nick Nolte is taller than the 5'9" Robert De Niro, but for the movie, Nolte lost weight and De Niro developed muscles until he appeared to be the stronger man.

The work of Alfred Hitchcock was also influential on the style of Cape Fear. As with the 1962 film version, where director J. Lee Thompson specifically acknowledged Hitchcock's influence, strove to use Hitchcock's style, and had Bernard Herrmann write the score, Scorsese made his version in the Hitchcock manner, especially through the use of unusual camera angles, lighting, and editing techniques. Additionally, Scorsese's version has opening credits designed by regular Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass, and the link to Hitchcock is cemented by the reuse of the original score by Herrmann, albeit reworked by Elmer Bernstein.[6] Portions of Bass's title sequences are reused from the unreleased ending to his film Phase IV.


Box office[edit]

The film was a box-office success, making $182,291,969 worldwide[7] on a $35-million budget.

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 74% based on 53 reviews, with an average score of 7/10. 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."[8] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 73 out of 100, based on 9 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[9] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[10]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars, commenting:[11]

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.

Awards and honors[edit]

Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards Best Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Juliette Lewis Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Cinematography Freddie Francis Nominated
Best Editing Thelma Schoonmaker Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Berlin Bear[12] Martin Scorsese Nominated
Broadcast Music, Inc. BMI Film Music Award Elmer Bernstein Won
CFCA Awards Best Director Martin Scorsese Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Nominated
Most Promising Actress Won
David di Donatello Award Best Foreign Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Jupiter Award Best International Actor Won
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis Won
MTV Movie Awards Best Kiss Nominated
Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Male Performance Nominated
Best Villain Nominated
National Society of Film Critics Award Best Supporting Actress Juliette Lewis 2nd place
New York Film Critics Circle Awards 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 Seinfeld episode "The Red Dot", Elaine says "It's Cape Fear!" as her boyfriend rampages through her office to get revenge on Jerry for making him lose his job.

In the Rick and Morty episode "Ricksy Business", Lucy, the deranged maid who tries to rape Jerry, is shown clinging to the underside chassis of their car as they drive home, maniacally shouting "Ha, I'm doing like in Cape Fear!"

In the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode "Mac and Charlie Die part 1", a scene in which Luther, Mac's father, is released from prison is based on the scene in which Robert De Niro's character is released.

In the South Park episode "Pre-School" Trent Boyett's character and his quest for revenge and the weight lifting scenes are both references to Cape Fear.

The film was parodied as Cape Munster in the premiere episode of The Ben Stiller Show, with Ben Stiller playing an adult Eddie Munster.[13][14][15]

The sixth episode of Chucky "Cape Queer" pays homage to the film with the characters of Jake Wheeler, Devon Evans, and Lexy Cross setting traps in an attempt to stop Chucky. Devon also watches the film in an earlier scene.

Cultural references[edit]

Cady quotes a translation of the 17th century priest, physician, mystic, and poet, Angelus Silesius, saying:

I am like God, and God like me.
I am as Large as God, He is as small as I.
He cannot above me, nor I beneath him, be.

However, the context of this line in the film does not match the context intended by Silesius. Cady uses it to emphasize dramatically to his intended victims the power of his individual will and his god-like ability to exact a violent vengeance. The context intended by Silesius was of man's realization through his spiritual potential for perfection that he was of the same substance with God in the sense of the mystical divine union or theosis.

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. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 3, 2021. Retrieved January 11, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  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. ^ "Cape Fear, film score". AllMusic.
  7. ^ "Cape Fear (1991) - Box Office Mojo". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 24, 2010.
  8. ^ "Cape Fear (1991)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 17, 2021.
  9. ^ "Cape Fear Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  10. ^ "CinemaScore".
  11. ^ "Cape Fear at". Roger Ebert. November 13, 1991.
  12. ^ "Berlinale: 1992 Programme". Retrieved May 22, 2011.
  13. ^ Jicha, Tom (September 26, 1992). "TOO MUCH TV AS A KID WAS GOOD FOR BEN STILLER". Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved June 4, 2021.
  14. ^ "'Ben Stiller Show' may become best-kept secret on TV". Orange County Register. October 7, 1992. Retrieved June 4, 2021 – via The Baltimore Sun.
  15. ^ King, Susan (December 4, 2003). "A two-disc treasure for 'Pirates' lovers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 4, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]