Cape Fear Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 release of Cape Fear . A career highpoint for virtually any other director but Scorsese is presented on a very good, although not great, disc

The Film

If it’s ever debated who the greatest living director is, two names normally come up: Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. It’s a far too sweeping statement to say that Spielberg is a more populist filmmaker than Scorsese- AI is as intelligent and obscure a piece of work as anything made by Spielberg’s friend and mentor Stanley Kubrick- but it’s equally true that Scorsese has a reputation for making difficult, uncompromising examinations of flawed humanity, often starring Robert de Niro, and Spielberg has a reputation for making sentimental films about redemption. It therefore comes as a perverse surprise to find that Cape Fear is in fact a strange cross between the two styles of filmmaking, and an even bigger surprise to discover that the film was, in fact, a collaboration between the two men, after Spielberg decided not to direct, but only to produce through his Amblin company.

The basic plot is much the same as J. Lee Thompson’s 1963 film, albeit with far more interesting psychological undercurrents and, of course, much violence. Sam Bowden (Nolte), has changed from the paragon of virtue that Gregory Peck played in the original to a more flawed character, a man who hid vital evidence so that his client Max Cady (De Niro here, Mitchum in the original) would be sent to prison; on his release, Cady seeks revenge on Bowden and his family, including his resentful wife (Lange) and his emotionally insecure daughter (Lewis). Trouble ensues.

The film has a reputation as being little more than a slasher film, albeit a slasher film directed by Scorsese, and to some extent this is justified. There are numerous overblown flourishes here, including an outrageous homage to Psycho late in the film, that feel almost as if Scorsese can’t be bothered to take the material seriously, with the big climax feeling overdone and emotionally unengaging. However, the film’s primary focus is on the undercurrents of the American family, and here it works wonderfully, thanks to the perfectly judged performances. Nolte is utterly loathsome as Bowden, and unsympathetic from the start; his ‘principles’ may have extended to deceiving Cady, cheating on his wife, neglecting his daughter and exploiting his mistress, but Scorsese’s choice of visual language constantly makes him appear somehow alien, constantly emphasising his lack of masculinity. Lange is slightly wasted as his resentful, undersexed wife- the character never quite comes into focus for her to be especially likeable- but Lewis is superb as the precocious daughter, exploring her sexuality in ways that her parents are utterly appalled by. The best scene in the film by some distance comes when Cady, posing as her drama teacher, confronts her in the school’s theatre, and the sexual interplay between the two is nothing short of electric, with a frisson being added by our knowledge of Cady’s appalling violence.

And, of course, we have Robert de Niro. Always at his best in Scorsese’s films, his Cady is a fantastic creation, coming perilously close to comedy throughout, right down to the swaggering machismo of the omnipresent cigars he constantly smokes, but still managing to be frightening. The script doesn’t really explain exactly what makes him tick- a late explanation is only halfway adequate, and attempts to describe a religious background for him feel redundant- but he is a brilliant representation of all the fears that the all-American family can have, being a more sexually attractive figure than Bowden to his wife, as well as a fantasy figure to Bowden’s daughter. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, in a clear taste of the Academy’s penchant for attractive psychopaths, as well as fearless performances. Without the performances and Scorsese’s direction, this would be an adequate potboiler; with them, it’s a minor masterpiece.

The Picture

The transfer is absolutely fine, if nothing really exciting; colours are all clear, the print is free of damage, and the overall effect is very pleasing. My copy was, unfortunately, slightly scratched, causing the disc to freeze and skip momentarily in a couple of scenes; however, this is not a general problem with all discs, and so should not detract from the excellent transfer for most. The only fault is that, occasionally, edge enhancement feels rather dominant.

The Sound

A DTS soundtrack is provided along with the Dolby track, and both do a pretty good job. The surrounds aren’t really used until the final scene on the houseboat, but then the effects are quite stunning, with aggressive use of effects to suggest the constant rain and turmoil on the boat. Dialogue is, of course, clear and well presented, and the music sounds as menacing as it did in the previous film, given that it’s the same soundtrack.

The Extras

Another Laurent Bouzereau special, a generous amount of extras are provided, although the absence of a commentary is a major disappointment; there are numerous scenes that really would benefit from Scorsese’s shot-by-shot discussion of them. However, the extras that are here are mostly excellent. The key one is an 80-minute documentary, which is an interesting look at the film’s genesis and production, with interviews from all the major cast (including a talkative de Niro) and crew. Scorsese, shown in both new and archival interviews, doesn’t seem especially pleased with the film, referring to it as his ‘payback’ for Last Temptation of Christ to Universal; while the film certainly isn’t as good as that stunning piece of work, it’s actually superior to, say, Bringing out the Dead or Kundun.

Other extras are less substantial, but still worth watching. The deleted scenes are boringly forgettable, and short at around 9 minutes; the short ‘behind the scenes’ segments are better, giving a good insight to Scorsese’s direction (although they are largely repeated in the documentary). The ‘photo montages’ are a faintly irritating collection of still photos, set to Bernard Herrmann’s score; although it’s a nice idea in principle, it suffers from the usual problems of decontextualised production photos, in that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.

More interesting are the matte paintings and Saul Bass featurettes. The first is a short but interesting look at the scenes that were digitally enhanced, some of which are less obvious than might appear so initially. The second is a collection of some of Saul Bass’ most famous credit sequences for Vertigo, Psycho, Spartacus and Casino, which are fascinating if you don’t already own the films on DVD, and still worth a look if you do. The usual trailer, production notes and bios are provided.


A fine film is presented on a pleasing disc that nevertheless fails to really excel in any category; still, it’s highly recommended for all Scorsese enthusiasts, and is only bettered by Taxi Driver and Last Temptation of Christ as DVD representations of his work.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Oct 26, 2001

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