Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is probably one of the scariest films that I can think of pertaining to the home invasion sub-genre. It very nearly ends up being a horror film apart from the fact that there is no ghost in here but a real man who at many junctures turns out to be scarier than a ghost. Robert De Niro’s Max Cady is a convicted rapist of a 16 year old. He tortured her so bad that when his defense counselor finds out about it, he decided to hold back evidences of the girl being promiscuous leading to Cady being imprisoned for 14 years. After his release he comes back to haunt the counselor and his family whom he now believes to be responsible for his incarceration. He takes a special liking to the counselor’s 15 year old daughter.
The film is a simple revenge story which Scorsese elevates using some interesting direction techniques and sensational performances. The way the film is presented is a far cry from the conventional fare. Take for instance the opening credits which reeks of innovation. The very title cards which have backgrounds of watery smudges and bright colors with an all seeing eye popping up towards the end with an ominous score in the background, sets the mood for what is about to come. From there we shift to a brief introduction of Cape Fear by Juliette Lewis who plays counselor Bowden’s (Nick Nolte) 15 years old daughter and then we cut to the prison cell of Cady who is about to be released. He is exercising with a number of books on law in front of him on the racks and pictures of dictators pasted on the walls. Upon release he hustles off directly out of his cell and then the jail and straight into the camera as if he hit it with his face.
Bowden and his family oblivious to his existence go about their daily chores. They have their first encounter with Cady at a movie theater where he hassles them by smoking incessantly. He leaves by paying for their ice creams and shows Bowden a glimpse of himself. Following the first meeting, Cady starts bumping into the family here and there more than often. With every passing day Bowden becomes more and more afraid that he might do something bad to them. He remembers what he had done to him and shares the same with one of his colleagues. As Cady gets more and more aggressive, poisons their dog and then brutally assaults one of Bowden’s close associate, he is forced to hire three men to beat him back to a hospital.
Cape Fear builds up sensationally to the climax which is terrifying and thrilling beyond compare. The film starts leisurely but with every scene the tension builds up. There isn’t a single moment of calm in the film and throughout the screening you will be at the edge of your seats. There is a sequence where Cady pays a visit to Bowden’s daughter at her school pretending to be a drama teacher. The way he floors her and then uses her rousing sexual urges to get the better of her is thrilling to watch. The audiences wait for something bad to happen which fortunately doesn’t happen but the director successfully sends the indication that the girl might be tarnished by the rouge at that moment of time. This sequence sends shivers down your spine.
There is a scene where Bowden and family lay a trap at their home and wait for Cady to fall prey to it. This scene culminates in the most unthinkable of outcomes with Cady killing of two important characters in a shocking manner. The climax is one which is bound to make many watch it from between the cracks of their fingers as they clench their hands over their eyes. Cady corners the family on a boat in Cape Fear and then goes on to assault both mother and daughter after he subdues Bowden with considerable ease. There is a single gun on the boat and that gun violently keeps changing hands swinging the balance of the battle from one side to another. Bowden’s daughter who seems to have an interesting connect with the murderer turns out to be the one to harm him in the worst manner possible.
The great Roger Ebert wrote “Cape Fear is impressive movie-making, showing Scorsese as a master of a traditional Hollywood genre who is able to mold it to his own themes and obsessions”. I cannot agree more with him. In these lines he has successfully underlined the basic feeling that the film successfully gives you. We have seen films of this type before but what sets this one apart is the treatment. Robert De Niro is evil. His Jail educated and literature crunching Cady has shades of some of the other brutal characters he played before but the evil that he portrays here gains weight with every passing scene with finally achieving the Devil’s status in the final scenes where he is not only bashed but also disfigured. Nick Nolte is the perfect choice for Bowden who is a shadowy character. He has righteousness about him but then he doesn’t mind the odd fling or two which results in family turmoil bringing her daughter to confine in a killer. Jessica Lange as his wife is perfect. She not only appears alluring but holds her own as a character. The surprise package for the movie is Juliette Lewis whose essays earned her an academy award nomination. She plays the confused daughter to perfection.
Overall, Cape Fear is a disturbing and intense thriller which will deeply affect you. It is the kind of film which makes you watch over your shoulders for that Cady in your own life. Complete with superb editing and sensational background score, Cape Fear is bound to not only entertain you but also haunt you long after the film was over.