After Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, the release of Martin Scorsese’s hypnotically engrossing Cape Fear locks into place the most exciting movie trend of the year. If this remake of the terrifically nasty 1962 classic takes off at the box office (and I can’t imagine that it won’t), 1991 is poised to go down as the year of the humanistic thriller-the year in which Demme and Scorsese, the two greatest American film artists now working, infused imaginative new blood into the genre of psychos, shock cuts, and showdowns in dark places.

Like Demme’s vertiginous Silence, Cape Fear, which is set to a reorchestrated version of Bernard Herrmann’s original, dread-ridden score, is a crowd-pleasing thriller that spins along on the dreams and anxieties of its characters. The movie lacks the druggy visual dazzle — the camera tracking, spinning, flying — associated with Scorsese’s best work. The direction, a toned- down version of his usual white-hot kinetic-whiplash style, is so unobtrusive that in many ways you’d never guess the flamboyant master of Raging Bull and GoodFellas was behind the camera. This time, it’s Scorsese’s humming internal sensibility that rules, as he fuses his obsessions with sin, brutality, and salvation into a throat-grabbing moral melodrama.

Wesley Strick’s script sets us down in the picturesque Southern town of New Essex, where Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), a slick, prosperous attorney, lives with his wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), and daughter, Danny (Juliette Lewis), in a two-story mini-mansion obviously modeled on Scarlett O’Hara’s beloved Tara. The house is a faintly vulgar monument to New South prosperity, but it’s also a middle-class fortress, protecting the Bowdens from any and all external threats. That is, until Max Cady (Robert De Niro) comes to town.

Cady, a vicious redneck, has just served a 14-year prison sentence stemming from a hideous incident of rape and battery. Now, he’s arrived to seek vengeance on Sam, the lawyer who defended him — and who, it turns out, was so repulsed by his client’s crime that he buried a crucial piece of evidence.

The psychotic but unfathomably clever Cady sports loud tropical shirts, speaks in a mean drawl, and smokes a cigar so gigantic it’s a joke. In a sense, the whole character is a joke (albeit a very dark one). Scorsese and De Niro are taking the sort of brutish, menacing, perversely unreasonable bastard they’ve created in previous films and turning him into a malevolent showbiz phantom. Cady begins to practice a sleek form of cat-and-mouse terrorism, implying — without really stepping outside the law — that it’s only a matter of time before he moves in for the kill (or, in the case of Sam’s wife and daughter, tries something even more indecent).

In the 1962 Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum played Cady with the heavy-lidded menace of a middle-aged degenerate peddling pornography on a street corner. Chuckling with ironic good cheer, parading his huge, bare chest like a billboard of flesh, he was evil incarnate (and Gregory Peck and his family were completely good), but he also had a charismatic hipster smoothness: He was like a country-club version of Brando in The Wild One, an amoral sexual dynamo busting apart the world of white-picket-fence ’50s conformity.

De Niro’s Cady, his sleek, pumped-up torso branded with tattoos, the corners of his mouth turned down in mocking maliciousness, is even more of an implacable, badass sadist than Mitchum’s was. But he’s also a kind of larger-than-life figure, a self-styled Nietzschean superman and biblical avenger out to ”save” the Bowdens from their sins. And sins they have. Scorsese has taken the original film and teased out a richly satisfying layer of moral complexity. In this version, the Bowdens’ marriage has never quite recovered from one of Sam’s infidelities. The knowing, 15-year-old Danny can sense the couple’s discordant vibes. What’s more, Sam, by failing to defend Cady to the best of his abilities, has become a professional hypocrite: He was a lawyer stepping outside the law, taking it into his own hands — and now, Cady implies, he no longer has the right to expect that same law to protect him.

Cady’s plan is to make Sam ”learn about loss” — not merely to scare him, nor even to rape his wife and daughter, but to strip his family away from him. He attacks the Bowdens from without and within, paralyzing them with fear and, at the same time, drawing their tensions to the surface. Even as Cady’s mind games expose the family’s fragile bonds, we’re always aware that he’s standing by, waiting to strike. That’s what gives the movie its atmosphere of rapt, Hitchcockian anxiety. Cady is a master of moods. He tricks Danny into thinking that he’s her new theater teacher and, in a spellbinding scene, wins her trust and her erotic interest, seducing her out of her father’s orbit.

Scorsese’s savviest move was to treat the vaguely dysfunctional Bowdens as an archetypal modern family. The delicate, pins-and-needles relationship between Sam and Danny is the film’s emotional flashpoint. Nolte creates a wrenching portrait of paternal impotence: As Sam stares at Danny, the daughter he loves but can’t reach, his face becomes ravaged by distress and rage. Is there another American actor who taps the turbulence of ”ordinary” emotions with such power? And newcomer Juliette Lewis creates the most telling portrait of a prematurely wised-up teenager the movies have seen in years. Lewis, with her full lips, flashing eyes, and unexpectedly throaty voice, shows us Danny’s child-woman precocity — the fact that, for all her MTV-generation smarts, she still has the eerie guilelessness of a young girl.

Up until the final act, in which the Bowdens, under siege, flee to their houseboat on the Cape Fear River, the movie goes like a shot. In the climax, though, Scorsese loses his sure footing. It’s not so much that the film turns conventional as that the director suddenly tries to do too many things — to goose us with incendiary, slasher-movie thrills, to turn Cady from a figure of iconic strength into a precarious human being, and to give this Bible Belt Mephistopheles a visionary send-off. The modes don’t mesh; the film never quite gets the catharsis it deserves. But no matter. Until then, Cape Fear proves that when a maverick virtuoso like Scorsese sets his mind to it, making ”mainstream” movies is one more thing he can do better than just about anyone else. A

Cape Fear
  • Movie
  • 128 minutes