Cape Fear: 6 Thoughts I Had While Rewatching The Robert De Niro Movie
There's a lot more to this movie than De Niro's amazing performance.
I first saw Cape Fear when I was still in high school, back when I was trying to start my own Fight Club. Back then, I was working on seeing every Robert De Niro performance in a Martin Scorsese movie, and even back then, Cape Fear was one of the strange ones.
In most of the best Martin Scorsese movies, like Taxi Driver, which is still one of the great New York City movies, Robert De Niro played disturbed characters. But, none of them were like Max Cady, who just had something about him that didn't sit well with me, even back then.
Fast forward nearly twenty years (Oh, my God!), and I've since watched Cape Fear again, but this time, through a different lens. You see, I'm no longer that insecure young male who thought Travis Bickle was a hero. I’m now a balding, nearing 40-year-old father who knows an incel when he sees one, and also doesn’t find vindictive rapists to be anything more than what they are, which is vindictive rapists. So, here are six thoughts I had while rewatching Cape Fear.
Oh, and major spoilers up ahead.
Nick Nolte's Character Is Actually A Really Loving Husband And Father, But He's Still Inept As A Protector
Back when I first saw Cape Fear as a teenager, I was really annoyed by Nick Nolte’s character, Sam Bowden. He's the lawyer who hid evidence from the jury, which led Max Cady to be sent away to prison for 14 years. Back then, I thought that Sam was getting his comeuppance for not fulfilling his legal obligation to his client, and I even sympathized with Cady, as he claimed to have lost his wife and daughter when he went away to prison.
Since watching Cape Fear, I have a new respect for Bowden. Yes, he hid evidence that led to Cady's incarceration, but as he tells Cady toward the end of the film, even though the underage girl he was imprisoned for was deemed “promiscuous,” that still didn’t give him the right to rape her!
I also now feel that Bowden, while inept in trying to stop Cady, was still doing everything in his power to protect his family. Sure, none of what he did worked, but, as a family man myself, I now empathize with him. How I ever sided with Max Cady as a teenager makes me sick to my stomach as an adult. Yuck.
Also, Nick Nolte Should Have Been Nominated For An Oscar For His Performance
Nowadays, when I think about Nick Nolte, I picture him as Kuiil from The Mandalorian. And, while yes, it’s fun to say lines like, “I have spoken,” I think I’ve really undervalued his entire career. Now, don’t get me wrong. He did get nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the movies Affliction and Warrior, and he’s great in both of those films. But, I honestly think he should have been nominated for Cape Fear, as well.
Nolte plays Bowden as a nebbish man who doesn’t want to be pushed, but if you do push him, he’ll…well, he’ll hire goons to gang up on you, and then try to trick you into breaking into his house so that somebody can legally shoot him to death in self-defense. But you know what? He plays it so convincingly, that I can genuinely put myself in his shoes and understand exactly why he’s thinking that way.
Every facial expression he makes is one that is calculating impending doom, and while he doesn’t command the screen like Robert De Niro does as Cady, his quiet performance may be even more impressive. I’m just finding that out now, though.
Danielle Bowden Is The Real Hero Of The Film
Now, while Nick Nolte didn’t get nominated, his co-star, Juliette Lewis, who played Bowden’s daughter, did get nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Juliette Lewis is great in the role of a smitten daughter who is both horrified and also potentially having her sexual awakening thinking about Cady, but upon watching it a second time, I now realize that Danielle Bowden is the most heroic character in the entire film.
Toward the end of the movie when they’re having that great boat scene in the storm, it’s Danielle who is smart enough to squirt lighter fluid on Cady, because she knows he has an affinity for smoking cigars. She’s the reason that he goes up in flames and falls off the boat. While she doesn’t kill him, she damn well nearly does, making her the true hero of the film.
Having Since Seen The Original Movie, I Now Realize That Robert Mitchum Is Actually In The Remake On The Opposite Side Of The Law
Throughout the movie, there are ancillary characters, like an officer who suggests to Bowden's character that maybe he should take the law into his own hands, to which Bowden initially declines, given that he's a lawyer. I originally thought little of this character until I watched the 1962 Cape Fear starring Robert Mitchum as Max Cady and Gregory Peck as the lawyer, Sam Bowden.
Well, after rewatching the 1991 Cape Fear, I now realize that those "ancillary characters" were really cameos by none other than Robert Mitchum as Lt. Elgart and Gregory Peck as the lawyer who actually defends De Niro's Max Cady. Just a little cool homage to the stellar original.
The Signs On The Side Of The Road When The Family Is Escaping For The Climax Are Actually Pretty Funny
This one isn't really big, but when the Bowden family is on the run from Max Cady, who is sneakily hidden beneath the car, the family drives past some stands on the way to their eventual boat. Well, along the way, there are a couple of signs that really made me laugh out loud that I definitely didn't catch the first time I watched the movie.
On the side of the road is a single guy just sitting in a lawn chair selling honey, and there is another vendor with a sign for a "bo-kay" of roses and carnations. Now, as a teenager, I was probably so invested in the story that I didn't understand the humor that this hick town they were hiding out in had somebody who didn't know how to spell "bouquet," but I definitely laughed upon my second watch. That's some funny stuff right there.
The Simpsons Episode, "Cape Feare" Is A Pretty Spot On Homage To The Movie
And lastly, can I just say what an excellent job The Simpsons did with their homage to Cape Fear with their funnily titled episode, "Cape Feare"? While I didn't include it in my list of the ten best Simpson episodes, nor did I include Sideshow Bob in my list of the 12 Simpsons characters that make me laugh (almost) as much as Bart and Homer, "Cape Feare" is still one of the best episodes, and Sideshow Bob is one of the best characters, because this is a pitch perfect homage to the movie.
Sideshow Bob is the Max Cady character, Bart is the victim who put him away from an earlier episode, and Bart’s the one who is also pursued in much the same way that Bowden is. It even includes a great scene that is not in the movie, where Bob gets hit by rake after rake, right in the face. I always knew that the episode referenced the 1991 movie, but I didn't realize just how much until I rewatched the film, and it's spot on.
That's all the things I realized upon my second viewing of Cape Fear. To see what my colleague thought of her second viewing of Death Becomes Her, or to see what we thought of other movies the second time around, then make sure to swing by here often.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.
By Rich Knight