Rereleased on DVD and Blu-ray by Fabulous Films, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the 1962 classic Cape Fear is often forgotten when discussing the director’s filmography. Sure, it’s no Goodfellas, but Cape Fear is one of the most underrated thrillers of the 1990s.
Based on the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear tells the story of attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his family as they are stalked by the vicious Max Cady (Robert De Niro) who has emerged from prison after a fourteen year sentence that he sees Bowden responsible for. What follows is a brutal tale of obsession and vengeance that leads to an unforgettable showdown on Cape Fear.
Originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg while Scorsese was due to make Schindler’s List, the two swapped projects when Spielberg lost interest in the project and Scorsese was apprehensive about making the Holocaust drama after controversy surrounding his biblical epic The Last Temptation of Christ and crime classic Goodfellas. The rest is movie history – Schindler’s List would go on to sweep the Oscars, while Cape Fear faded into obscurity, despite a few award noms. But the relentlessly thrilling tale of psychological torment holds up today as a hidden gem of the genre.
De Niro is terrifyingly mesmerising as Max, the volatile and psychopathic stalker at the centre of the story. In true De Niro method fashion, the actor paid a dentist $5,000 to have his teeth grinded down (and then a further $20,000 to have them restored after shooting) to make the villainous maniac all the more frightening. Portrayed with a menacingly charismatic Southern drawl, Max is certainly De Niro’s scariest performance. Strong supporting performances from Nolte, Juliette Lewis and Jessica Lange are all great, along with cameos from original cast Gregory Peck (in his final performance), Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam – but this is De Niro’s film through and through. He is terrific, making Max Cady arguably one of the most disturbing screen villains of the last 50 years.
Often lost in Martin Scorsese’s rich and varied filmography, the masterfully directed Cape Fear is a compelling exercise in relentless cinematic tension.