On Nov. 15, 1991, Universal unveiled Martin Scorsese’s thriller Cape Fear in theaters, where it would go on to gross $182 million globally. The film was nominated for two Oscars at the 64th Academy Awards, for Robert De Niro in the best actor category and Juliette Lewis as best supporting actress. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review is below.
Martin Scorsese has gone to the Old Book this time, recasting a classic thriller and tattooing his antagonist, Robert De Niro, with the awful vengeance of the Old Testament god. Indeed, the wrath of De Niro, especially when pitched to the level of a jangle-brained Jehovah, is a mighty thing, but, in this case, its inherent cartoonery capsizes this film’s small-story frame.
Scorsese fans, especially the serioso cineaste types, may discern that the talented, ambitious director is likely pacing himself with this generic exercise; nevertheless, Cape Fear is too bare bones to please the sophisticated audiences who relish Scorsese’s underbelly thrusts.
They are likely to be unmoved by this stylish but thin stalker story. Chart some initially raging business around this Cape before it quickly descends into a box office quagmire.
In this meticulously crafted, but psychologically underfleshed thriller, Scorsese has performed a textbook execution of a mad stalker story: Ex-con Max Cady (De Niro) shows up in a sleepy Southern town to methodically harass his former lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), whose lax defense caused Max a harsh, 14-year sentence.
Muscled to the max and crazed with the grandeur of a god complex, Harry seeks his vengeance. He’s a wily devil, insidiously and seductively tapping into the fears and disruptions of Bowden’s flawed family life.
Cape Fear never properly submerges to its full-blown character depths. Scorsese has only skimmed the surface of psychological terror here, merely casting his directorial line upon the generic waters and never hooking the big, deep and dark stuff.
Muscled up, tattooed with fearsome Biblical injunctions and outfitted in white-trash, resort wear, De Niro as mad Max is, as you’d expect, one scary-looking creature. But there is an offputting and distracting carny show element to his persona: One gets the feeling it’s a camp-up to out-nut Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle. Still, De Niro makes for one lethal loon.
Unfortunately, in addition to Nolte’s thinly drawn role, Jessica Lange is wasted as merely a connective character, an imprecisely drawn mother-wife malcontent. Perhaps providing the strongest real counterbalance to De Niro’s crazy Cady is Juliette Lewis, whose gangly packed performance as the couple’s disenchanted 15-year-old daughter shows the most sinewy fiber.
Smash cuts, rhythmic zooms as well as a wellspring of technical flourishes (including a shimmeringly eerie title sequence), pulse and punctuate with steady, coursing energy. Depths of praise to editor Thelma Schoonmaker, director of photography Freddie Francis, title-ists Elaine and Saul Bass, and sound mixer Tod Maitland for the surging undercurrents on Cape Fear. — Duane Byrge, originally published Nov. 11, 1991.