(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Cape Fear
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: Once upon a time, Martin Scorsese was developing a film called Schindler’s List and Steven Spielberg was working on a remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear. At one point, the two filmmakers decided to swap projects – Schindler’s List was a project that truly spoke to Spielberg and following the controversial release of The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese needed a commercial hit. We all know what happened with Spielberg’s film (it’s a masterpiece), but Scorsese’s Cape Fear is a footnote in an extraordinary career, a box office hit that only left the briefest of pop culture imprints, better remembered for the Simpsons episode that brutally parodied it than the film itself.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Of course, that’s a bit of an unfair way to introduce what is a very good, and very unsettling, thriller. In fact, Cape Fear is the rare Martin Scorsese horror movie, a genre he would only dabble in once more with the underrated Shutter Island. And while it lacks so many of the director’s trademark obsessions and tics, it’s a slick, mean and exciting piece of pop filmmaking. It’s Martin Scorsese letting his hair down and indulging himself in popcorn entertainment.
Cape Fear maintains the basic concept of the original film, but it ups the “ick” factor to 11. Robert De Niro plays Max Cady, a deep-fried southern maniac covered with tattoos who has just gotten out of prison for a brutal crime. Nick Nolte is his former lawyer, who intentionally lost the case to make sure Cady wasn’t allowed to run free. Now, Cady has set his sights on the man who ensured his sentence, enacting a revenge plan that will tear his family apart – first metaphorically, and then literally.
De Niro’s performance looms large over the film, his menace even spilling into scenes where he is not present. We are first told that Max Cady is a dangerous man and then we see him in action, brutalizing a young woman in one of the most upsetting scenes Scorsese ever filmed (which is saying a lot). Nolte is tasked with providing a counterbalance – De Niro got the Oscar nomination, but his co-star’s depiction of an ordinary man breaking down as he’s pushed into a corner makes the whole thing work.
But while the film is violent, few of Scorsese’s other trademark obsessions are present. The film tips its hat toward the concept of religious guilt – Cady’s vengeance becomes increasingly biblical in its scope – but beyond that, Scorsese’s interest here seems to be purely in aesthetics. Special effects shots featuring terrifying skies over isolated homes. Surreal encounters lit by exploding fireworks. Deranged seductions set in a fairy tale house built in a high school auditorium. Scorsese is channeling the era in which the original film was made and a specific kind of serious-minded B-movie thriller, but heightening it to something operatic. Something grand. You get the impression that Scorsese is having fun behind the camera, even if the material isn’t anywhere close to his heart.
That makes Cape Fear a damn interesting film. It’s not necessarily Scorsese “selling out” (the film is too good to earn that distinction), but it feels very much like he was making one for the audience instead of one for him. Perhaps because of that, the movie has slipped through the cracks over the years. Certain images (like De Niro puffing a cigar in a movie theater and laughing maniacally) live on as memes, but the film itself is rarely discussed. Poll a bunch of millennials and they’ll probably be more familiar with “Cape Feare,” the 1993 episode of The Simpsons that riffs on this film, with Sideshow Bob taking the place of Max Cady. And maybe that’s okay. Because “Cape Feare” is an all-time great episode of television. And Cape Fear is just a good Martin Scorsese movie, albeit one that should be seen by all movie fans hoping to get a complete picture of a master’s body of work.
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