Ones on 1: In 1991, Martin Scorsese finally scored a hit with “Cape Fear”

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Ones on 1 is a monthly feature in which I write about a selected film that reached number one at the box office for precisely one weekend. This month, we examine the film which took the crown on November 17, 1991: 
Cape Fear.

Since his rise in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Martin Scorsese has always been one of the most respected filmmakers in the world. However, Scorsese the commercially successful filmmaker is a relatively new phenomenon. His four most successful films (The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator) have all come in the last 10 years. In the ’80s especially, he was seen as a brilliant filmmaker who made box office failure after box office failure, with the lone exception being 1986’s The Color of Money. Other, intensely personal projects like Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ all failed when loosed upon the general public. He was always a brilliant director, but as the ’80s turned into the ’90s, most were ready to accept that his work just was never going to really click with the public at large.

Then, in 1990, things took a drastic turn for the better. Scorsese made Goodfellas, an incredible achievement that still stands tall today as one of the great crime films ever made. (Honestly, it probably is the greatest.) It was only a solid financial hit, but its critical and awards success was massive. It was nominated for six Oscars, winning one for Joe Pesci’s singular supporting performance, but even that doesn’t illustrate the film’s full impact. Scorsese had always been brilliant, but with Goodfellas he was no longer quietly brilliant. Now he was left to decide his next move.

Ultimately, Scorsese’s follow-up to Goodfellas would wind up being Cape Fear, a remake of a 1962 thriller starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. This was hardly a passion project for him, but instead an opportunity floated his way by friend Steven Spielberg, whose previous decade was, obviously, the polar opposite of Scorsese’s at the box office. The pair had two very different projects on the table: Cape Fear and Schindler’s List. Originally Spielberg was set to direct the former with Scorsese helming the latter, but Spielberg thought it might be a better decision to switch. This swap ultimately worked out well for both. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is a mammoth piece of filmmaking that won seven Academy Awards and is still held up as one of the most important films of its decade. Scorsese’s Cape Fear, meanwhile, became the director’s most successful film by a mile, a crown it would hold until The Aviator came along in 2004. Unfortunately, it may also be the worst movie he ever made.

This may not be a majority opinion, since most seem to look fondly upon the most blatant for-hire job of Scorsese’s career. I certainly have no complaints about him taking the job considering the opportunities it gave him later in the ’90s, but looking at it now, Cape Fear is a mess; a combination of promising elements that wind up being more off-putting than entertaining. Scorsese tells the story in an old-school, theatrical fashion, but it makes for an odd mix with the occasional scenes of brutality. This is a filmmaker who has spent his entire career taking violent, despicable people and turning their stories into first-rate entertainment, but in Cape Fear he seems to be reaching for something that isn’t quite there.

Take the introduction of the film’s villain Max Cady, played by Robert De Niro. Elmer Bernstein’s score blares on the soundtrack as Cady is revealed exercising in his prison cell. A guard comes to let him out, and we watch as he walks out of the prison to his freedom. The score continues, and we are ultimately treated to a wide shot of De Niro walking towards the camera, with a fake storm brewing in skies behind him. This is an intro worthy of a Star Wars villain, and the film stops just short of flashing a “THIS IS OMINOUS” subtitle on the screen. This gloriously unsubtle scene isn’t a problem by itself, but it clashes rather violently with much of what is to come. Just minutes later, we watch as Cady takes a woman home from a bar, handcuffs her, bites a massive chunk out of her face, and then savagely beats her. Scorsese tries his darndest to provide a sense of cohesion, but he can’t pull it off.

For the first and last time in a Scorsese film, a De Niro performance actually winds up being part of the problem. His Cady is 90 percent voice and 10 percent character, and any sense of menace feels completely manufactured. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s not much in the way of complexity to this character. His past, personality and motivations can all be explained away in a couple seconds, and by the end he’s forced to go even further off the rails. He certainly can’t be accused of phoning this performance in, because he underwent quite the physical transformation in order to pull it off. This is just a case of De Niro getting a thin villain role and attempting to overcompensate with pure insanity.

The same can probably be said for Scorsese’s directorial work as a whole. This story, on the surface, is not a very good fit for his sensibilities. This was one of the only times in his career he took on a project for primarily commercial reasons, but he didn’t approach the material halfheartedly. He gives this movie everything he’s got; the camera almost never stops moving, the cutting can be rather chaotic, music is applied generously along with some truly weird sound effects, and, most importantly, he didn’t resort to turning this into a PG/PG-13 movie. This surprising ambition at least turns Cape Fear into a fascinating mess. If he did go through the motions just to finish this thing as soon as possible, it probably would have just been boring. That it ain’t.

As poorly as the film may hold up today, Cape Fear wound up being quite the success at the box office. For that reason alone, it exists in Scorsese’s filmography as something of a necessary evil. Even though he was coming off a success in Goodfellas, a real bona fide hit was needed in order to give him the boost he needed. He returned to his box office struggles in the late ’90s—making a ponderous, star-free film about the Dalai Lama’s formative years can do that to you—but eventually, in the 21st century, he legitimately became one of the most consistently successful directors around when it comes to box office. Weirdly enough, it wasn’t a result of him starting to pander to audiences’ interest. Rather, they started to come to him.

That said, starting a working relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio probably didn’t hurt. Yeah, that’ll do it.

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