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Cape Fear is a 1991 American psychological thriller film directed by Martin Scorsese and a remake of the 1962 film of the same name. 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, using mostly 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
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 conducted by Elmer Bernstein
CinematographyFreddie Francis
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • November 13, 1991 (1991-11-13)
Running time
128 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$35 million
Box office$182.3 million

Cape Fear marks the seventh collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro. The film received positive reviews and received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Lewis).


Sam Bowden is a lawyer in the town of New Essex, North Carolina. Max Cady is a former client whom Bowden defended 14 years earlier when he was working as a public defender in Atlanta. Cady was tried for the violent rape and battery of a young woman. Bowden, appalled by Cady's crime, buried evidence that might have lightened Cady's sentence or even secured his acquittal. Cady studied law in prison and assumed his own defense, unsuccessfully appealing his conviction several times. Cady hints he has learned about Bowden burying the report. After his release from prison, Cady tracks down Bowden.

Cady soon begins to terrorise Bowden and his family, which consists of Bowden's wife Leigh and their teenage daughter Danielle. The family dog is poisoned. Cady lurks near their property. Bowden attempts to have Cady arrested, but police lieutenant Elgart says there is no evidence of a crime. At a bar, Cady meets Bowden's colleague Lori Davis. At her house, Cady cuffs her hands, breaks her arm, bites skin off of her cheek and rapes her. Lori refuses to press charges, ashamed of what happened. Bowden hires private investigator Claude Kersek to follow Cady.

Cady approaches Danielle at her school by impersonating her new drama teacher and kisses her. Bowden warns Cady to leave him and his family alone or suffer the consequences. Cady secretly tapes the conversation with a hidden recorder. Kersek persuades Bowden to hire three men to beat Cady, but as Bowden watches from a hiding place, Cady turns the tide on his attackers and viciously beats them. Cady uses the recording of Bowden's threat and an exaggerated display of his own injuries to file for a restraining order against Bowden. Cady's new lawyer, Lee Heller, files a complaint with the North Carolina State Bar - vowing to have Bowden disbarred.

Kersek reasons that Cady may try to enter the Bowden house during Bowden's appearance at a bar hearing out of town. They fake Bowden's departure and hide 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 Kersek, strangling him with piano wire and shooting him to death with his own gun. Sam, Leigh, and Danielle discover the bodies. Horrified, they flee to their houseboat, which is docked upstate along Cape Fear. Cady follows them by tying himself to the chassis of their car. He attacks the family on the boat, beating and tying up Bowden, and prepares to rape Leigh and Danielle while making Bowden watch. Danielle sprays Cady with lighter fluid while 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 Bowden and his family - putting the former on a mock trial to condemn him for withholding the specific evidence that would've given him a lighter sentence in jail and, despite Bowden's insistence that his crime was too heinous for that evidence to be taken into account, for failing to properly do his duty as a lawyer. The storm eventually knocks him off his feet, allowing Bowden to gain the upper hand once the women make it to shore. Bowden uses Cady's handcuffs to shackle Cady to the boat. When the boat hits a rock and is destroyed, the fight continues on shore. A raging tide carries Cady away, and he drowns. Bowden washes the blood from his hands before rejoining 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 Hermann 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]


Box officeEdit

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

Critical responseEdit

The film received generally positive reviews by critics, with praise garnered towards its performances, direction, cinematography and editing. It received a 75% "Certified Fresh" rating on the film aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 48 reviews, with an average score of 7.1/10. The 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 holds a score of 73 out of 100 based on 9 reviews, 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: "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."[11]

Awards and honorsEdit

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 cultureEdit

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).

In 1995, professional wrestler Waylon Mercy made his WWE (then WWF) debut, with his gimmick based on De Niro's portrayal of Max Cady. However, he only lasted a few months with the company due to a buildup of previous injuries, and the character was abandoned. In 2013, WWE debuted Bray Wyatt, another character partly based on De Niro's portrayal.[13]

In the Seinfeld episode "The Red Dot", as Elaine's boyfriend rampages through her office to get revenge on Jerry for making him lose his job, Elaine makes a reference to the film.

Also in the Seinfeld episode “The Bookstore”, in a dream after Jerry rats on Uncle Leo for shoplifting in a bookstore, Jerry has a nightmare where Uncle Leo is doing chin ups, working out in prison to get his revenge on Jerry once he finally received his release. A close up, sharing the same scary score of the movie, Uncle Leo is seen with “Jerry” & “Hello” tattooed on each hand. It's 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!"

Cultural referencesEdit

In the movie, Danielle is pictured reading Thomas Wolfe's 1929 coming-of-age novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

Kersek tells Sam he saw Cady at the public library reading Friedrich Nietzsche's classic philosophical novel Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Pretending to be Danielle's new drama teacher, Cady calls Danielle on the phone. After a short conversation, he plays Aretha Franklin's single "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."

Alone with Danielle in the school's theater, Cady alludes to Henry Miller's trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion, which contains the books Plexus, Nexus, and Sexus. Danielle says she read parts of Tropic of Cancer.

Cady tells Sam he will teach him "the meaning of commitment." He tells Sam to "check out the Bible, counselor. Look between Esther and Psalms." After staging his departure at the airport, Sam returns home covertly with Leigh and Danielle, and later discovers Cady was referring to the Book of Job.

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

Cady alludes to Dante's Inferno, saying he is Virgil guiding Sam through the Ninth Circle of Hell, the last and lowest circle, reserved for traitors.

See alsoEdit


  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".
  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 at". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 1, 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 readingEdit

External linksEdit