Cape Fear (1991 film)

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Cape Fear
Cape fear 91.jpg
Theatrical release poster by John Alvin
Directed byMartin Scorsese
Produced byBarbara De Fina
Screenplay byWesley Strick
Based on
Music byBernard Herrmann
Elmer Bernstein (adaptation)
CinematographyFreddie Francis
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
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, Juliette Lewis, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck in his final theatrical film role. In addition to Mitchum and Peck, Martin Balsam cameos in the remake; all three starred in the original film.

The film tells the story of a convicted 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 (Nick Nolte) is a lawyer living in North Carolina with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a former client whom Sam failed to defend properly, is released from prison after 14 years; Cady was tried for rape and battery of a young woman and, appalled by the attack, Sam buried evidence that might have lightened Cady's sentence or even secured his acquittal.

Cady, who has studied law in prison but unsuccessfully appealed his conviction several times, tracks Sam down and begins to terrorise the Bowden family; he lurks near the property and the family dog is mysteriously killed. Sam attempts to have Cady arrested but the police say there is no evidence of a crime. At a bar, Cady intentionally meets Sam's work colleague Lori. He later violently attacks and rapes her but she refuses to press charges, ashamed of what happened. Sam hires a private investigator, Kersek, to follow Cady.

Cady approaches Danielle at school by impersonating her new drama teacher, and they kiss. Sam warns Cady to leave him and his family alone or suffer the consequences, a conversation that Cady secretly tapes with a hidden recorder. Sam also hires three men to beat Cady; as Sam watches from afar, 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.

Kersek anticipates Cady trying to enter the Bowden house while he believes Sam is out of town; the family fakes his 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 impersonates her to ambush and kill Kersek. Horrified after discovering the bodies, Sam, Leigh, and Danielle flee to their houseboat docked upstate along 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 to condemn him for withholding the specific evidence that would have given him a lighter sentence in jail. Despite Sam's insistence that his crime was too heinous for that evidence to be taken into account, Cady berates him for failing to properly do his duty as a lawyer.

The storm eventually knocks Cady off of his feet, allowing Sam to gain the upper hand once the women jump off the boat and make it to shore. Sam then 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. Sam washes the blood from his hands before he rejoins Leigh and Danielle.



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. Spielberg stayed on as a producer, through his Amblin Entertainment, but chose not to be credited personally on the finished film.[2]

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.[3]

Nick Nolte is taller than Robert De Niro, but for the movie, Nolte lost weight and De Niro developed muscles until De Niro appeared to be the stronger man. De Niro reportedly took his body fat down to 4%.[4] De Niro also paid a doctor $5,000 to grind down his teeth for the role to give the character a more menacing look, later paying $20,000 to have his teeth restored after the film production was over.[5]

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 50 reviews, with an average score of 7.04/10. 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 1995, professional wrestler Dan Spivey made his WWF (now WWE) debut under the ring name, Waylon Mercy, with his gimmick based on De Niro's portrayal of Max Cady. However, he only lasted a few months with the company, as Spivey was forced into retirement due to a buildup of previous injuries, and the character was abandoned. In 2013, WWE debuted Bray Wyatt, another character partly based on not just De Niro's portrayal, but also Waylon Mercy.[13]

In a Seinfeld episode, titled "The Red Dot", Elaine makes a reference to the film as her boyfriend rampages through her office to get revenge on Jerry for making him lose his job. In another Seinfeld episode, “The Bookstore”, after Jerry rats on Uncle Leo for shoplifting in a bookstore, Jerry has a nightmare where Leo is doing chin ups, working out in prison to get his revenge on Jerry once he finally received his release. Sharing the same scary score of the movie, a close-up of Uncle Leo is seen with “Jerry” & “Hello” tattooed on each hand. This is a clear reference to Robert De Niro's character in Cape Fear.

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 and the 1991 remake of the same name.

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. ^ Maslin, Janet (November 10, 1991). "FILM; Martin Scorsese Ventures Back To 'Cape Fear'". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Cormier, Roger (November 16, 2016). "15 Intense Facts About Cape Fear". Mental Floss. Retrieved June 2, 2018.
  4. ^ "Showtimes, reviews, trailers, news and more - MSN Movies". Archived from the original on September 23, 2012. Retrieved July 7, 2011.
  5. ^ "Stars who went too far for movie roles". Yahoo!.
  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 January 11, 2011.
  9. ^ "Cape Fear Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  10. ^ "CinemaScore".
  11. ^ "Cape Fear at". Roger Ebert. November 13, 1991. Retrieved October 13, 2010.
  12. ^ "Berlinale: 1992 Programme". Retrieved May 22, 2011.
  13. ^ "Critics, not fans, should bite their tongues". Slam! Wrestling. Retrieved November 22, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]