Cape Fear

Cape Fear Information

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 and Juliette Lewis and features cameos from Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam, who all appeared in the 1962 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.

The film marks the seventh of eight collaborations between Scorsese and De Niro, following Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), Goodfellas (1990), and ending with Casino (1995).

The film received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Supporting Actress (Lewis).


Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a lawyer in the quiet town of New Essex, North Carolina. Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is a former client whom Bowden had defended fourteen years previously when he was working as a public defender in Atlanta. Cady, who was being tried for the rape and battery of a young woman, was illiterate at the time and unable to read a report Bowden had kept hidden from the court, which revealed that the victim was promiscuous. The report might have lightened Cady's sentence or even acquitted him had Bowden brought it to light. Bowden had kept it hidden because he was appalled by the sheer violence in Cady's crime and wanted him to serve a severe sentence.

After his release from prison, Cady tracks down Bowden. The former convict learned to read and studied law in prison, and even assumed his own defense, unsuccessfully appealing his conviction several times. Cady hints strongly that he has learned about Bowden burying the report, stating that the judge and prosecutor in his case did their jobs while Bowden betrayed his own client.

Several incidents involving Cady begin to impact the Bowden family, which consists of Bowden's wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and their teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). The family dog, Ben, is mysteriously poisoned. Cady is seen at night perched on the wall just outside the Bowden property limits. Bowden attempts to have Cady arrested, but local police lieutenant Elgart (Robert Mitchum) reminds Bowden that there is no evidence Cady has committed any crime.

At a bar, Cady meets Lori Davis (Illeana Douglas), a female colleague of Bowden with whom Bowden may or may not be having a love affair. Later at her house, Cady cuffs her hands behind her back, breaks her arm, bites a chunk of flesh from her cheek and brutally rapes her. Lori refuses to press charges against Cady, fearful that she will be publicly questioned about her sexual history. Cady next approaches Danielle at her school by pretending to be her new drama teacher and goes as far as kissing her.

Bowden, finally having had enough, hires private investigator Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) to follow Cady. Bowden also approaches Cady in a restaurant and gives him a firm warning to leave him and his family alone or suffer the consequences. Cady refuses to give in, and he secretly tapes the conversation with a recorder hidden under the table.

Kersek eventually persuades Bowden to hire three men to beat Cady in an effort to intimidate him but, as Bowden watches from a hiding place, Cady quickly turns the tide on his attackers and viciously beats them. Cady hears Bowden from behind his hiding spot and steadily approaches him, intimidating him with psychotic ramblings and a literary quote, but decides to leave. 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 (Gregory Peck), also files a complaint with the North Carolina State Bar, vowing to have Bowden disbarred from practicing law.

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. As they wait, Cady, disguised as the maid Graciella (Zully Montero), attacks and kills Kersek in the kitchen. Bowden, Leigh, and Dani discover his body, as well as that of Graciella. Horrified, they flee in their car to their house-boat, which is docked upstate along Cape Fear.

Cady follows them by tying himself to the chassis of the Bowdens' car. That night, he attacks the family on the boat, beating and tying up Bowden, and prepares to rape both Leigh and Dani while Bowden watches. When Leigh offers herself in Dani's place, Dani sprays Cady with lighter fluid while he lights a cigar, engulfing him in flames and causing him to jump off the boat in order to extinguish the fire. However, Cady clings to a rope tied to the boat and pulls himself back on board.

As the boat is rocked by a violent storm, Cady ferociously confronts Bowden with a mock trial. Bowden finally admits to having buried the potentially exculpatory report but counters that the woman's promiscuity was no justification to defend a rape. An enraged Cady prepares to kill Bowden, but the storm and the river's harsh current knocks Cady off his feet, allowing Bowden to gain the upper hand once the women make it to shore.

The two men fight furiously, until Bowden finally manages to use Cady's handcuffs to shackle Cady to the boat. When the boat hits a stationary rock and is destroyed, the fight continues on shore. Bowden almost crushes Cady's head with a large stone; however, a raging tide carries Cady away, as he is madly screaming in tongues. Bowden watches as the piece of boat sinks to the bottom of the river, taking the still-shackled Cady with it, and then performs a cathartic washing of his blood from his hands before rejoining Leigh and Dani further up the riverbank.



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.

It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro, lost to Anthony Hopkins for The Silence of the Lambs) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Juliette Lewis, lost to Mercedes Ruehl for The Fisher King).

The film was a box-office success, making $182,291,969 worldwide on a $35 million budget. The film also received critical acclaim, and has a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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 four percent. De Niro also paid a doctor $20,000 to grind down his teeth for the role to give the character a more menacing look.

Although a remake of the original Cape Fear, Scorsese's update is also greatly influenced by another Mitchum film, The Night of the Hunter, and the work of Alfred Hitchcock (signaled by the opening credits by regular Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass and its score by another, Bernard Herrmann).

This is also the first film Scorsese shot in the wider 2.39:1 aspect ratio, as opposed to the smaller 1.85:1 ratio in which he had filmed all his previous works (excluding New York, New York, which was shot in 1.66:1).

Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam and Robert Mitchum appear in supporting roles, Peck as Cady's lawyer, Balsam as the judge and Mitchum as the police detective who suggests to Bowden the possibility of using "alternative" means to stop Cady.


The film received generally positive reviews by critics. It currently has a 76% "fresh" rating on the film aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 7.1 out of 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"

Awards nominations and honors

Robert De Niro was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Actor and the Golden Globe for Best Actor " Drama. Juliette Lewis received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress " Motion Picture. The film was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 42nd Berlin International Film Festival.

American Film Institute recognition:

  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
    • "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" " Nominated

Cultural references

The film was parodied in the 1993 Simpsons episode, "Cape Feare". In 1995, WWE debuted a character named Waylon Mercy, portrayed by Dan Spivey, who was based on De Niro's portrayal of Max Cady. Spivey only lasted a few months with the company due to injury, and the character was abandoned. In 2012, WWE once again developed a character based on De Niro's portrayal of Max Cady.

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