Cape Fear (1991): Scorsese’s Version to the 1962 Masterpiece, Starring Nick Nolte (Confused and Paranoid), Robert De Niro (Scary), Jessica Lange (Miscast, or Misdirected), and Best of All Juliette Lewis, with Cameos by Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, Who Dominated J.L. Thompson’s 1962 Picture (Scorsese’s Only Foray into the Horror Genre)

Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake is inferior in every way–story character, tension– to the original black-and-white film made by J. L. Thompson in 1962, which starred Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck in top firm.

Grade: C+ (**1/2* out of *****)

Cape Fear

Theatrical release poster by John Alvin

Scorsese pays homage to the original, casting that film’s actors, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Martin Balsam, in cameo roles.

The music by Elmer Bernstein also pays tribute to the original and brilliant Bernard Herrmann score.

Judged on its own merits, the film is too excessive and baroque, prompting some critics to compare it to the work of Brian De Palma, a lesser director than Scorsese, but more adept for depicting horror.

Originally developed by Spielberg, he eventually decided it was too violent and traded it to Scorsese in exchange for Schindler’s List, which Scorsese had decided not to make.

Scorsese agreed to direct Cape Fear because Universal supported his controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ.

Although Spielberg stayed on as a producer through his company Amblin, he chose not to be credited on the finished film.

Scorsese had previously worked with Nolte in New York Stories (1989), an anthology co-directed with Woody Allen and Coppola, but he initially envisioned Harrison Ford in the role of Sam Bowden. However, Ford agreed to be in the film only if he could play Max Cady. Nolte, who was interested in playing Bowden, convinced Scorsese to cast him.

Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon both auditioned for the part of Danielle Bowden., but Scorsese opted to cast a newcomer, Juliette Lewis.

Ileana Douglas, who plays one of Cady’s victims, in what is the tale’s scariest scenes (he raps and breaks her bones), was Scorsese’s girlfriend at the time. (Ileana is the granddaughter of the great actor Melvyn Douglas, best known for Ninotchka, and Oscar winning roles in Hud and Being There).


Inspired by Hitchcock

Hitchcock was a significant influence on Cape Fear. As with the 1962 film, where director J. Lee Thompson specifically acknowledged Hitchcock’s influence and employed Bernard Herrmann to write the score, Scorsese also adopted Hitchcock’s style, using unusual camera angles, lighting, and editing techniques.

The opening credits were designed by Saul Bass, a frequent collaborator of Hitchcock, and the link to Hitchcock was further cemented by the reuse of Herrmann’s original score, reworked by Elmer Bernstein. Portions of Bass’s title sequences were reused from the unreleased ending to the film Phase IV.

The plot is the same as that of the original: De Niro, a psychotic former con decides to take revenge on the lawyer (Nick Nolte) that had prosecuted him and sent him to prison.

To that extent, he begins to stalk the lawyer’s dissatisfied wife (Jessica Lange, playing an impossible, incoherent role) and seduce his vulnerable daughter (Juliette Lewis) in what amounts to the best scene in the picture, one set in school.

Production values, especially cinematography by Freddie Francis and editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, are good, and the film is quite effective in generating tension and suspense.

But overall, this is an unpleasant picture—you don’t root for or empathize with any of the family members, except for the young daughter, who almost succumbs to the psychotic’s seductive charm.


Scorsese takes too long to get to the inevitably mano a mano climax, which is shot under water, and is predictably and excessively brutal.

Much has been made of the fact that Nolte lost weight for the film while De Niro gained muscle, giving the appearance that Cady is the stronger man, despite Nolte being the taller.

Nick Nolte: confused, driven by Demons but ultimately sympathetic

Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden in Cape Fear

Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden in Cape Fear© 

Nick Nolte delivers a strong performance in Cape Fear as the head of the Bowden family. On the outside, Sam is a highly respected man among his colleagues and peers and family man when he’s not prosecuting criminals. However, underneath the clean facade lays a cowardly man who cheats on his wife and engages in borderline illegal practices to advance his law career.

Nolte manages to make Sam somewhat sympathetic during the film. Even though stuck in loveless marriage and withheld information that could have reduced Cady’s prison sentence, he redeems himself at the film’s climax by fighting Cady.

Nolte’s usual typecasting as stoic lawmen works in his favor in Cape Fear as he convincingly portrays that against Cady’s relentless harassment.

De Niro: Psychotic and Scary

Robert De Niro as Max Cady with a cigar In Cape Fear

De Niro as Max Cady with a cigar In Cape Fear

De Niro’s take on the character was far more psychotic and dangerous than the version played by Mitchum in the original.

His chiseled physique and ground teeth made him look like a character is a horror flick. De Niro’s Cady was weirdly mesmerizing with reverend-like delivery of each line and southern drawl.

De Niro went the extra mile in preparation for his role in the 1991 thriller by adopting workout regiment and diet that reduced his body fat to the single digits, made suggestions for his character’s multiple tattoos, and spoke with the native of North Carolina to ensure his southern dialect was right.

His first scene with Juliette Lewis scared her so much, that she repeatedly forgot her lines.

Always reliable in a Scorsese picture, De Niro’s interpretation of Max Cady is easily one of the best in the filmmaker’s career.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actor: Robert De Niro

Supporting Actress: Juliette Lewis

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actor Oscar was Anthony Hopkins for The Silence of the Lambs, which also won Best Picture.

Mercedes Ruehl won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a passable work in The Fisher King.


Robert De Niro as Max Cady
Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden
Jessica Lange as Leigh Bowden
Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden
Joe Don Baker as Claude Kersek
Robert Mitchum as Lieutenant Elgart
Gregory Peck as Lee Heller
Illeana Douglas as Lori Davis
Fred Thompson as Tom Broadbent
Martin Balsam as Judge
Zully Montero as Graciela
Domenica Cameron-Scorsese as Danielle’s friend


Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Wesley Strick, based on Cape Fear 1962 film by James R. Webb, The Executioners 1957 novel by John D. MacDonald

Produced by Barbara De Fina
Cinematography Freddie Francis
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker
Music by Bernard Herrmann; Elmer Bernstein (adaptation)

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment; Cappa Films
Tribeca Productions

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release date: November 15, 1991

Running time: 128 minutes
Budget $35 million
Box office $182.3 million

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