''Cape Fear,'' was the director's film that finally brought audiences into theaters

Back in the early ’80s, when financial backing for The Last Temptation of Christ had fallen through yet again, Martin Scorsese had his own crisis of faith. His career was stalled; after the blazing genius of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, the director had stubbed a toe with the chilly New York, New York and tripped badly over what the press likes to call an ”excessive lifestyle.” Raging Bull in 1980 had impressed critics and nobody else. Scorsese was viewed as that most leprous of Hollywood pariahs: an artist. ”’So, okay,”’ he later confessed saying to himself, ”’what would I do if I weren’t allowed to make movies anymore? I’d still make movies. And I’d make them even if I didn’t have the control over them, no final cut.’ So I tried to combine a personal style without having the final cut.”

He was lucky. He got both.

It took a number of years, but 1991 proves the most innovative, creative, fascinating director in America to be riding the crest of a remarkable renaissance. With his mesmerizing thriller Cape Fear, Scorsese has attained something that has always stayed just out of his grasp: a mass audience. By fusing his ongoing inquisition into sin, guilt, and redemption with the slickest of scream-machinery, Scorsese suddenly has it all.

His return to grace can be dated from 1989, when his section of New York Stories (”Life Lessons,” starring Nick Nolte) joltingly reminded people just how good he was. The next year, Raging Bull was named ”Best Film of the ’80s” by American Film magazine and many independent critics. Then came 1990’s GoodFellas, a warm, clear-eyed look at a bunch of cold-blooded killers. Scorsese was back in his old neighborhood in every sense of the phrase. But that neighborhood is so specific — so dark, so New York, so Italian — that GoodFellas still had trouble reaching audiences. It grossed a relatively modest $50 million, and Scorsese lost the Best Director Oscar to Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves — a startling replay of Raging Bull’s 1980 loss to Robert Redford and Ordinary People.

Does that matter to such a maverick? Of course it matters. ”I don’t want to be considered an adjunct to the business,” Scorsese told Playboy earlier this year. ”All my life I’ve been on the outside.” One sees in those words the asthmatic child who literally couldn’t join other kids at play. The young man pinned between Catholicism and rock & roll, making movies as a form of confession. The older filmmaker whose demons won’t let him be anyone but himself, but who can’t rest until he gets a hit, a real hit.

He can rest now, if he wants to. But he won’t. This year Scorsese signed a six-year deal with Universal to produce and direct pretty much whatever he chooses. And just to keep us guessing, Scorsese is about to start filming an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. Could it be that his career up to now has just been antipasto — and the main course is about to be served?

Cape Fear
  • Movie
  • 128 minutes