Another one on my list of Scorsese-movies-to-watch, Cape Fear is a gloriously pulpy thriller about a defense attorney, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who along with his family is threatened by a man from his past. Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is a violent rapist and a walking tattoo exhibition who’s been released after 14 years of prison, and wants revenge on Bowden for deliberately sabotaging his defense. Turns out, Bowden withheld an information on Cady’s victim that probably would have had Cady acquitted – a decision made for emotionally understandable reasons that still without a doubt went against what the job of a defense attorney is supposed to be about. Cady is smart enough to stay on the right side of the law, or at least not get caught, before his menacing, taunting presence drives Bowden to a breaking point and things escalate.
Bowden’s family is troubled even before Cady shows up – things aren’t great between him and his wife (Jessica Lange) with a history of infidelities on his side, and their fights make life miserable for their teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). In a true Scorsese fashion, Bowden is not a terribly likeable protagonist – he starts off the film with what looks like a beginning of yet another affair, and comes around to making shady decisions on how to handle Cady fairly quickly after some token balking. He’s a very tainted kind of hero, maybe not someone you really root for but I liked the moral ambiguity Scorsese introduces to what could have been a very straightforward, black-and-white scenario.
Cape Fear takes its time building up the tension, which totally pays off because by the end I was sitting with my heart in my mouth dreading what was about to happen. One of the creepiest scenes in the movie involves Cady luring Danielle into an empty theatre at her school; though I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to really harm her at that point the scene gets disturbing in a different fashion with Danielle rather attracted to Cady’s air of danger. De Niro’s demonic, aggressive performance struck me as overly cartoonish at first, but his total commitment to his psychotic character won me over in the end; and even though you know his true nature Cady’s charm still catches you off-guard in some scenes. The overly dramatic score (it reminded me of the old Hollywood thrillers from the 40s, which was probably deliberate?) initially annoyed me, and the movie’s zoom-in shots got a bit repetitive, but overall it’s an effective, stylish and brutal exercise in suspense.