This film begins with one of the most heavy-handed title sequences in recent memory, proceeds to a narrator who is both unappealing and, frankly, a twit, and then hands off the baton to Max Cady (Robert De Niro). Whenever it is enraptured by Cady's words, the film blooms and glows. We first meet the tattooed back of him (with truth and justice as captions) before an "eight-by-nine" library of a jail cell. On his wall hang pictures of mustached dictators that we would all do well to forget, as well as law books with stipulations and codes that he justifiably cannot. "What about your books, Cady?" asks a guard as he struts out of the Georgia State Correctional Facility and into our camera, literally ramming it with his ground teeth. "Already read 'em," he replies coolly. He has had all the time in the world – fourteen years, to be precise. And it is clear to absolutely every viewer of Cape Fear that after spending a third of his life in lockup, Max Cady is now on a mission.
That mission will take us to New Essex, North Carolina, that type of sleepy little town that tends to harbor the wickedest of secrets. It will also introduce us to the Bowdens, "Slippery" Sam (Nick Nolte, who has never looked quite so slick and unpleasant), an attorney, Leigh (Jessica Lange), a designer, and their only child, fifteen-year-old Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Even from the opening vignettes, one has the impression that the Bowdens have seen far unhappier times. Too many of their words seem weighed as if they were all striving not to exceed some invisible boundaries of pain. Lange, for example, is made to look as dowdy as is possible for a woman of her attractiveness (my childhood awe of her in this film has never dissipated). This otherwise inexplicable move serves two purposes: mother and daughter gain a passing resemblance and Sam's roving eye seems extenuated. One June evening a family outing to the movies is tarnished by the maniacal laughs of Cady, who happens to be enjoying a cigar (the camera caresses his bikinied lighter) only a couple of rows in front of them. Our cigar-smoking hyena never even turns to address the indignant requests so Sam orders his clan to decamp. When Danielle eggs on her father in that way we all have of taking pride in those who protect us ("Dad, you should have punched him out"), Sam espies an opportunity for a parental lesson in non-violence. Yet it is precisely here – as if to undermine Sam's credentials as a domestic lawgiver – that Leigh chuckles that Sam should be used to "fighting dirty," a comment at which he takes umbrage. As he goes to pay for their after-movie snack, however, Sam is informed that "everything's been taken care of." The caretaker? The fellow with the cigar glowering at them from the red convertible in the parking lot. But that person and his car are now gone.
Since Cady is a very recent ex-convict and Sam a criminal defense lawyer, we suspect a vivid back story. We get one, and it comprises the primary distinction between Scorsese's plot and that of the 1962 original. While the first Sam Bowden is scapegoated by a madman whose legal culpability was never really in question, our Sam is not quite as innocent. Once upon a time and place, 1977 Atlanta to be exact, Max Cady couldn't even read the laws he had every intention of breaking, a handicap that obliged his kindly attorney to enunciate every statute for Cady's own frustrated half-comprehension. About the only thing that Sam did not have to dictate to his client was the latter's eventual conviction for the sexual assault and battery of a teenage girl. Events throughout Cape Fear make it painfully obvious that Max Cady is not a good man victimized by an imperfect justice system; in fact, one might properly wonder why on earth we would ever release such a beast from incarceration. Nevertheless, the letter of our imperfect laws was not followed: after Cady buttonholes him in his car and punctuates their reacquaintance with a whisper that sounds a lot like "you're going to learn about loss," Sam confesses his own sins to another attorney. And what was Sam's unpardonable offense? Nothing really if you understand guilt as absolute and not relative to the weaknesses of the prosecution and its toolbox. Looking back at what he did and did not do for his client, Sam cannot help but imagine his own daughter, now the age of the victim in 1977, and consider Cady's disgusting acts in a more personalized context ("If you had seen," he assures the same skeptical colleague, "what he did to this girl"). Sam's moral character is further tainted by his implied escapades with a frisky law clerk (Illeana Douglas, Scorsese's girlfriend at the time) about whom he does not see any need to tell his wife. One evil night, of course, Cady will happen to chat up this same clerk, whose regrettable taste in men turns out to be unwavering. At the precise center of the film, in a masterful scene more suspenseful than anything involving a killer shark or slasher, Cady will also get a crack at sweet helpless Danielle. While Lewis as a sex symbol remains one of Hollywood's greatest implausibilities, she can play rather effortlessly the incipient rebel who might like a little dope and a little of this author. And Danielle has long since determined that her parents are neither soul mates nor entities worthy of their proclaimed authority, which will explain a few minor discrepancies in our story.
The conclusion to Cape Fear was quickly spoiled by trailers that prove you can't just name a film after a location and not feature its natural obstacles. I remember seeing it in the theater at Danielle's film age and being put off by the utter inevitability of what happens, an opinion I swiftly forsook upon reviewing. As it were, the film's strength is drawn specifically from its irresistible force, from the notion of old sins that recur to the sinner, from the sense of implacable doom. Although not his best role, De Niro immortalizes himself in Max Cady in no small part through his much-ballyhooed fitness and his even more celebrated tattoos, most of which avow Biblical vengeance. Despite this unorthodox appearance, Cady is so smooth, silver-tongued, and terrifyingly literate that at times one forgets his most recent permanent address. Then we realize he has been performing this role, in gradually modulated versions of perfection, for the last fourteen years. His very best monologue is delivered in his convertible before a standing Sam after the latter has just been informed of when exactly Max learned to read in jail and what he chose as his favorite texts. In this scene, if but for one or two seconds, De Niro succeeds in making us pity someone who was, at least in terms of due process, deprived unfairly of his freedom. When Sam interrupts this brilliant flow of details by proposing monetary compensation, Cady simply crunches the numbers and accuses his former attorney of offering him below minimum wage. "Not to mention," he mentions anyway, "the family and respect [he] lost" during his long sentence. The worst sequence involves a hare-brained scheme to lure Cady into a trap in the Bowdens' house, and the less said about these minutes the better. But the finest moments remain those at the film's midpoint between Danielle and Cady. Here several possible, perfectly viable outcomes present themselves, but only the best and, in a way, the most shocking occurs. It is also here that Cady warns the youngest Bowden that "every man carries a circle of hell around his head like a halo. Your daddy, too. Every man. Every man has to go through hell to reach his paradise." And whatever that paradise might entail is not ours to imagine.