Saturday, April 6, 2013

Film Review: CAPE FEAR (1991, Martin Scorsese)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 128 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Nick Nolte (EXTREME PREJUDICE, FAREWELL TO THE KING), Jessica Lange (THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE '81, TITUS), Robert De Niro (RAGING BULL, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE), Joe Don Baker (THE OUTFIT, THE NATURAL, WALKING TALL), Juliette Lewis (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, STRANGE DAYS), Illeana Douglas (GOODFELLAS, GHOST WORLD), and Fred Dalton Thompson (real-life failed presidential candidate, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER).  Cameo appearances by Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam (PSYCHO, DEATH WISH 3).  New screenplay by Wesley Strick (ARACHNOPHOBIA, WOLF).  Cinematography by Freddie Francis (THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE).  Non-original music by Bernard Herrmann.  Herrmann score adapted by Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, GHOSTBUSTERS). Credits sequence by Saul Bass.  Uncredited executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall. 
Tag-line: "There is nothing in the dark that isn't in the light.  Except fear.  Cape Fear."  (emphasis added)
Best one-liner:  "Counselor!"

Alright, folks.  CAPE FEAR '91 has kind of a bad reputation.  Now, Scorsese went all out:  I think he thought this was going to be his "Hitchcock" film.  He even updated the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack and had Saul Bass (!) do the credits sequence.

As it turns out, it ain't Hitchcock, but let me put it in perspective.  You know that clichéd high school yearbook quote, "Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you'll land among the stars?"  I think a slightly modified version of that can apply here.  I surmise:  "Shoot for Hitchcock('s moon-shaped belly), even if you miss, you'll land among the De Palmas."  And that's exactly what this feels like– a mid-range De Palma film!  And there are much worse things to be– because I happen to love mid-range De Palma (BODY DOUBLE, DRESSED TO KILL, RAISING CAIN, etc.) .

So without further adieu, and though I do prefer the original, here are seven quick reasons why CAPE FEAR '91 is a place worth visiting:

#1.  The inverse cameos.  CAPE FEAR '91 brings back three of the principals from CAPE FEAR '62, and in strange bizarro versions.
First, we have 'ol Rumple Eyes himself, Bob Mitchum, helping the Nick Nolte character protect himself from De Niro's version of the original Mitchum role.  Whew.

Then, we have Gregory Peck as an apparently evil version of Atticus Finch, defending De Niro from Nick Nolte's version of the original Peck role.  Damn!

Finally, we have Martin Balsam playing the judge who sides with De Niro, because he hates "vigilante justice."  Now, I know that's not true– given that I've seen him mow down legions of gang members with WWII-era machine gun in DEATH WISH 3.

#2.  Joe Don Baker drinking a combination of Pepto-Bismol and Jim Beam for the duration of the film.

If that doesn't warm your heart, then I personally forbid you from ever again watching a Joe Don Baker movie.

#3.  De Niro makin' creepy phone calls in gravity boots. 

Because... 1991.

#4.  The "clinging to the underbelly of a rapidly moving vehicle for several hours" plot twist, which feels EXACTLY like something that'd be in a De Palma film. 

#5.  Ditto on "murderous De Niro in drag."
It's really one of those strange performances where you can't quite tell if he's phoning it in or not.  There's often a fine line between "bad" acting and "genius" acting (see: the career of Steve Railsback, for example), and I kinda can't tell if this is a performance of nuanced intensity, or if it's a practical joke on the audience.  Either way, I love it.

#6.  Continuing in this vein:  in 1991, nearly one hundred years of motion picture history culminated in the subtle beauty of Robert De Niro singing a line of Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now"

while offering a joint to orthodonitia-encrusted teenage Juliette Lewis:

Truly fantastic.

#7.  Nick Nolte crazy-face!

I've discussed this in-depth before, but there are few things more frighteningly exhilarating than seeing a crazy-faced Nick Nolte in his native habitat.


P.S.  It always struck me as bizarre that the theatrical poster's placement (see above) of the torn photo and De Niro's creepy gaze build a subliminal image of a keyhole, especially since I can't recall keyholes being relevant to the plot whatsoever.  Thoughts?

–Sean Gill


J.D. Lafrance said...

Well, the keyhole imagery could symbolize how Scorsese's CAPE FEAR takes us behind closed doors and explores the dysfunctional family dynamic of Nolte and co. and how De Niro's psycho preys on their insecurities, working his predatory mojo on all them all, one-by-one.

Heh. I had forgotten about that disgusting drink concoction of Joe Don's. But if anyone can pull that off it'd be him!

Sean Gill said...


That makes sense, and it's certainly a little more introspective than your average movie poster.

And yeah- you gotta love Joe Don Baker. We have no other choice, really.

John Guedes said...

De Niro may have phoned in that performance, but he sure didn't phone in that physique. Dude was ripped!

Sean Gill said...


Indeed he was! I dare say he was RAMBO ready.