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#11: Cape Fear
(USA, 1991; dir. Martin Scorsese; scr. Wesley Strick; cin. Freddie Francis; with Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Fred Dalton Thompson, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam)
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This entry has been all the more fun to write and the movie all the more fun to re-watch after spending time with Tom Shone's lavishly illustrated Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective, a book so hard to put down it almost made me late for a meeting.

Cape Fear was the point at which my cinephilia became unstoppable. There's an irony here, since the movie's own director regards it coolly, and an ambiguity, too, since I was already a weird enough pre-teen to have asked my parents to bring me to Children of a Lesser God, The Accidental Tourist, and My Left Foot. Those, however, were the choices of a kid more bookish than movie-mad. Cape Fear's wild profligacy with colors, whip-pans, smash-cuts, aggressive foley work, process shots, rotating axes, stentorian musical themes, and inside-joke cameos marked Cinema's arrival into my filmgoing routine. It seemed unconcerned with prestige, even though it had already racked up significant nominations by the time it landed in Germany. The movie is a playground and an abattoir at the same time. Scorsese tests out some new toys, including noir tropes, Bernard Herrmann motifs, and his widest aspect ratio to that time, and then throws them at us like shuriken. I recently credited Crash for showing me how a director's sensibility could reform every aspect of a script, often in counter-intuitive ways. I should have specified that while Crash exemplifed how that process could still yield a fearsomely integrated film. Cape Fear was a magnificent lesson in how a director could push material around without bothering to merge with it. Though powered by a very strong Wesley Strick screenplay, Cape Fear imposes visual, aural, and thematic ideas on a story outline that hardly begged for them. You feel the movie finding angles on itself, as Scorsese makes a spectacle of his punchy, even bullying authorship, toying with characters and viewers, bending us all to his will, just as Max Cady honey-badgers the barely-united Bowdens. The result plays oddly: a film busily emphasizing Scorsesean ideas about guilt, violence, and sexual temptation, making the project more "his" while in other ways effacing any personal stamp and aiming straight for the box office. I doubt I perceived any internal conflict at the time or smelled the occasional desperation. I still don't care when I do. I've loved Cape Fear too long to see anything wrong here, and amid this ponderous phase of Scorsese's career, I'd love to see him shoot from the hip like this again. Or to see De Niro's jagged edge restored, even as he enjoys himself. Or to see Jessica Lange explode like a collapsed star, and mean it. Or to see Nick Nolte cast as anything other than an unwashed, choleric walrus. Or to see a contemporary cat-and-mouse thriller without cellphones or search engines. Cape Fear is a time capsule now but felt up-to-the-minute in 1991. Still today, as it spins in my player, nothing else in the world is even happening.

Like Murnau's Nosferatu, Scorsese's Max Cady is a thoroughly cinematic wraith. He appears and disappears on the spot, as much a hallucination as a material presence. He hangs upside down. He walks through walls. Unmistakable even in long shot, at times he nonetheless passes incognito from a foot away. He is the evanescent centerpiece of a fireworks show but also the tatted and ripped monster of a gristly grindhouse revenge plot. There's a sense that cinema itself is stalking the Bowdens, forcing them to entertain us in their suffering, turning every trivial event in their home (a banging shutter, a mute piano key, a maid staying the night) into a portent of domestic apocalypse. They are not the squeaky-clean quarry of the 1962 version. Late in the Reagan-Bush era, on the brink of regime change, newly fluent in the argot of "dysfunction," the early-90s zeitgeist demanded that the Bowdens exhibit sin, temper, and damage. Every time they comply, the movie opens their wounds wider, in CinemaScope and Technicolor. A lip-licking revenant, Max seems to avenge himself just as much on the good-evil polarities of an earlier Hollywood era as on the specific perfidies of Sam Bowden, the lawyer who reneged on his oath. Sam, for his part, withstands a kind of Bill Harford trajectory: it's not just that everything goes wrong for him, but everything goes wrong in high cinematic style, challenging the ostensible self-evidence of his life with the instabilities of language and image. Sam's wife wakes from their bed and smears her face with more livid colors; when he sneaks off for an illicit phone call, she appears in the window, irised and reflected, like a Hitchcock vision, or a vision from The Innocents (shot by the same cinematographer, Freddie Francis). Sam's daughter walks onto a set, and it's bad enough that she is menaced there, and somehow worse that she performs so well. She plays the role Cady hands to her, a role in which she is eager to be cast, rather than refusing as Sam does. Meanwhile, his own adventures in play-acting fail. A dumb show at the airport doesn't fool anyone. A carefully memorized script at a diner comes back to haunt him. At the end of the movie, wielding a heavy stone over Max Cady, that furious avatar of slippery signification, he thrusts his lethal weapon down, only to find that signs cannot be killed. They always escape.

More than the same year's Silence of the Lambs, somehow closer to JFK, Cape Fear made representation itself seem terrifying yet irresistible—the very language of film packs a frightful wallop. If the Bowdens weren't so sharply written and lustily played, you might catch yourself rooting for Max, the exciting agent of flash and disarray, the implacable malefactor who makes cameras spin and water rain upwards, who has covered his skin in art. But Cape Fear remains a moral work; it insists on a more internally compromised family than the earlier version did but refuses any logic by which infidelity, dishonesty, and other betrayals warrant Max's assault. I was surprised on a recent rewatch to discover that Sam's motivating misdeed—his refusal to introduce testimony about a rape victim's alleged promiscuity—has a stronger ethical claim, however vocationally dubious, than I had recalled. I easily imagine myself doing the same thing, and I don't usually see myself doing anything Nick Nolte would do. You feel for the Bowdens, even or maybe especially as they come at each other or stomp away from each other, even as they find themselves aroused in different ways by Max's threat. None are turned on, exactly, but like righties or lefties after a gun massacre, they feel simultaneously vulnerable and validated in what they've long believed: that Sam/Dad is shifty, though he thinks he can outwit the threat; that Leigh/Mom is impossible, though she thinks Sam's the problem; that Danielle must be even more thoroughly sheltered, though she thinks she sees more clearly and connects better than her parents; that everything with their family is wrong, though they all think they can defeat a common enemy. Their hypocrisies and miscalculations are strident but also poignant. Despite their distractingly uneven Suth'n ak-cints, the Bowdens and their persecution have always felt real to me. Which makes the danger, for all the hyperbole baked into the film, real as well.

Not to slight Strick or De Niro or Nolte or the roguish gallery of men in the cast, but it's the women of Cape Fear who make the terror credible. Meeting Scorsese first through this film, I've never not thought of him as a top-drawer director of women. Lange's two confrontations with Max, at the mailbox and on the houseboat, imply in very different ways, growling and pleading, that he's met an unexpected match, even if Leigh may overestimate her power. Illeana Douglas's long second scene, beginning at the bar and ending back home, is stomach-churning not just in its sadistic finale but in the brilliantly liquored and loopy improvisations that lead up to it. Her Lori is a deeply wounded woman who lets go a little, impulsively sticking her neck into a more or less obvious guillotine, as if to see what will happen. That scene and Douglas's performance would be the crowning glories of the film if it weren't for De Niro and Juliette Lewis's twelve-minute pas de deux in the high-school auditorium, still one of the most tense and exciting sequences I've ever experienced in a theater, mostly constituted of two characters talking, several yards apart. Without the claustrophobic close-ups of the Clarice/Hannibal interrogations (especially in white-hot Memphis), without the bait-and-switch factor of Betty's audition in Mulholland Drive, this Cape Fear sequence is as potent if not more so. It slows down time, amps up erotic threat, pushes improv to an astonishing limit, remixes old Southern discourses around imperiled white women and their sexuality, and captures the pregnant process by which a young girl suddenly clocks a concealed truth, cycles through a series of thoughts and emotions, and realizes her impulses to flee and stay are equally strong. Lewis's work in this scene—and across the whole film, really—was a new apex in film acting as far as I was concerned, back in 1991. I still get the same charge from it, and would rather watch her shift her weight or suck a thumb than watch Brando fiddle with a glove. This performance is the original reason there's a whole section about actressing on this site.

Watching Cape Fear repeatedly in ninth grade, with a particular focus on Lewis's amazing gamut from archness ("I thought we were relaxed now") to naïveté ("I memorized some for you"), noting how she beat the Raging Bull himself for the championship belt in acting and how the movie couldn't resist privileging her (she's the first and last character you meet, and her biggest scene is its centerpiece), I felt my own rush of teenaged gratification. Clearly she profited from stellar stewarding and scene-partners, but this girl was obviously working on an idiosyncratic frequency all her own. Even as an adolescent disinclined toward tantrums, elated in the bosom of a supportive family, unlured by drugs or sex, and unburdened with any day-to-day sense of being misunderstood, I took extraordinary vicarious pride in Lewis's achievement. I looked up to her. I thought, See! Young people can do anything. I remember being furious at a high-school classmate who overheard me rhapsodizing on a bus about her performance, not for the first or tenth time. "She didn't seem special to me," M— A— said. "You're probably thinking with the wrong part of your body." Fuck off, M— A—, I thought, or maybe even said. Hours later, that bus pulled onto the Champs Élysées—when you take high-school French in Germany, you get field trips to France—and lo and behold: a gigantic poster for Martin Scorsese's Les Nerfs a vif draped across an entire building, in the same field of vision as the Arc de Triomphe. Smug with victory, I convinced several classmates and one chaperone to see the movie again during two of our budgeted free hours. Arguably, this was not the most prudent use of precious time in the City of Light, but I had learned that with the right persuasive pitch, you could convince people to see movies they'd underestimated or avoided. Moreover, the cognoscenti of Paris, the hosts of the Louvre, the midwives of impressionism and surrealism and cinema, were treating Cape Fear as special. Evidently, this brazen trash really was art. See, I thought. I'm young, but I knew it.


Hey, Reader: Well, here we are at last, at the lip of the Top 10. Since I'm promising to show you mine, I want to see yours! Share your own tip-top favorite movies here.

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