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‘Cape Fear’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 15, 1991


Martin Scorsese
Robert De Niro;
Nick Nolte;
Jessica Lange;
Joe Don Baker;
Robert Mitchum;
Gregory Peck;
Juliette Lewis;
Martin Balsam;
Fred Dalton Thompson
Under 17 restricted

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With "Cafe Fear" director Martin Scorsese brings honor back to the remake. He shines up this reprise of the original with original brilliance.

The 1962 film noir classic was taut and simple. Scorsese's version is no less taut. But it's several times more complex. In this hyperbolic era of knife-wielding Glenn Closes and indestructible Terminators, Scorsese ups the ante for '90s sensibilities yet never loses his directorial integrity.

In other words, it's a helluva movie.

"Fear" also marks a sterling performance by Robert De Niro. As the psychotic behemoth with vengeance on his mind, he's the movie's lurking, all-powerful spirit. He's a tattooed, avenging angel of prime-evil justice. Behind his scene-stealing work are authoritative performances by Nick Nolte and wife Jessica Lange. As De Niro's payback victims, they claw at (and finally to) each other with convincing desperation.

Sentimentally gratifying cameos come from Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam -- all principals in the original movie. But the surprise performance comes from Juliette Lewis, as Nolte's sexually budding daughter. At the menacing hands of De Niro, she goes from troubled teenager to woman in a staggering sequence of stages.

On the immediate level, "Fear" is a basic revenge story. De Niro has been imprisoned for 14 years, thanks to attorney Nolte. Defending De Niro on a rape-and-battery charge, Nolte suddenly decided his client was a rapist and suppressed a key piece of evidence that would have saved De Niro. Now sprung from jail, De Niro tracks down Nolte and family to the Carolinas. A subtle but relentless harassment begins. With nothing legal he can pin on De Niro, Nolte has to take the law into his own hands.

Director Scorsese and screenwriter Wesley Strick transform this B-Noir into an intriguing morality play. The movie's awash with themes: Truth and deceit, good and evil, salvation and damnation, treachery and fidelity, freedom and imprisonment.

There are moral twists everywhere. No one is more honest and truth-obsessed than De Niro. Had Nolte not "betrayed both of us," he tells Lange at one point, "we might have been different people."

De Niro isn't Nolte's only battle. The attorney has to face his own, shadowy half. In addition to betraying De Niro, he has a wandering eye with women, he treats his daughter roughly and he indulges in shaky legal maneuvers.

"Fear" also swims in a sea of sexual tension. A mention of necrophilia and incest gives Nolte a sudden sexual appetite for his wife. He's also just a little too strange when he sees Lewis lying around in T-shirt and underwear. When Nolte leaves his wife alone at home -- with De Niro at large -- Lange retorts, "What about a weapon, in case things get exciting around here?"

The prime sexual play is between De Niro and Lewis, however. To Nolte's horror, the white-trash jailbird coaxes her effortlessly into an erotic transformation. In one of the most enthralling scenes, De Niro (pretending to be a teacher) lures Lewis to a theater in the basement of a school. He charms her with a gentleness she doesn't know at home. It's the Big Bad Wolf in modern dress.

There are moments of intense and sudden brutality. A chunk of flesh is bitten from one victim's cheek. At one climactic point, Nolte and family literally slip and slide in spilled blood. The movie's also imbued with grimly amusing touches. When Lange calls De Niro repulsive, he replies, "I understand. I'm not your type." When Nolte initially objects to excessive retribution against De Niro, hired detective Joe Don Baker observes: "The only thing excessive would be to gut him and eat his liver."

Scorsese modulates the tension and expresses the darkest implications at exhilarating, snappily edited pace. The cat-and-mouse tensions are all building toward an incredible finale in a houseboat in swirling waters. But in Scorsese's hands, this isn't just a final dukeout in a bad storm. It's the awesome, soul-shattering turbulence of the Last Judgment.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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