Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Cape Fear (1991)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Cape Fear (1991)

In virtuoso director Martin Scorsese's suspenseful and very violent psychological thriller and remake of the original J. Lee Thompson's 1962 melodrama with Robert Mitchum - both films were based upon John D. MacDonald's 1957 novel The Executioners; the story told of fierce and remorseless retribution being enacted upon a public defender who 14 years earlier had made errors during the trial of an illiterate and brutal rapist (he had suppressed the victim's sexual history), and now the convicted, unrepentant, released madman and predatory ex-con went on a mission to orchestrate unbridled, dark rampage against the defenseless lawyer and his entire family.

There were influences from Alfred Hitchcock in the film, including various camera angles and techniques (smash cuts and zooms), a score by Bernard Herrmann reworked from the original film, and an eerie opening title credits sequence by Hitchcock favorite Saul Bass.

  • the visually-moving film opened and closed with thoughts from the precocious young daughter in the film, Danielle Bowden (Juliette Lewis), about the Cape Fear incident on the houseboat (the film's content) that she had written about in a school assignment titled "My Reminiscence": ("I always thought that for such a lovely river, the name was mystifying: 'Cape Fear,' when the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end, and real life would come crashing in")
Opening Prologue by Danielle "Dani" Bowden (Juliette Lewis)
  • the entrance of the main character was ominous, frightening and chilling - heavily-tattooed, taut-muscled, psychotic prisoner Max Cady (an over-the-top Robert DeNiro), viewed from behind, was performing modified push-ups in his small prison cell; his most prominent tattoo was on his back, depicting a huge black crucifixion cross with its nails dangling the opposing scales of justice (TRUTH and JUSTICE); his wall was decorated with pictures of military figures (including Confederate leader Robert E. Lee), a priestly martyr, and Joseph Stalin, and other possessions (a well-worn Bible, a book titled "Eat Right and Stay Fit," a collection of law books, Friedrich Nietzsche's "The Will to Power," and Jake Manning's "The Cell Within")
  • the vengeful Cady walked out of the prison after serving 14 years for the violent crime of rape, as dark thunderclouds gathered in the sky behind him
  • Cady arrived in the small town of New Essex, NC; his sole mission in life was to stalk, frighten, and threaten family man and corporate lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and 15 year-old daughter Danielle

Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte)

Leigh (Jessica Lange)
  • the family unknowingly encountered Cady in a movie theater (showing Problem Child (1990) - a family comedy starring John Ritter) where the obnoxiously-behaved, crass Max cackled loudly and inappropriately while smoking a cigar and sitting in front of the Bowden family, causing them to be annoyed and leave early; at an ice cream shop afterwards, he anonymously paid for the Bowdens' order as he ominously sat outside in his vehicle
  • Sam played a game of racquetball with his pretty and attractive law clerk Lori Davis (Illeana Douglas) - they were flirtatiously involved with each other and were on the verge of a physical affair behind Leigh's back: ("You know, Lori, another time, another place. Who knows, you know?")
  • shortly later, the menacing Cady directly confronted Sam in his car, briefly snatched his car keys, and explained how he had been released and might be settling down in the Southern town: ("It's a small town. Everywhere you turn, we're gonna run into each other"); disturbingly, he mumbled as he walked away: "You're gonna learn about loss"; in the middle of the night, he was viewed in the light of fireworks as he sat on their home's outer perimeter wall, disturbing Leigh
Stalking the Bowden Family and Sam - In His Car Outside Ice Cream Shop, On the Street Outside Sam's Car, On a Perimeter Wall Outside the Bowden Home
  • the next morning, without any grounds to arrest the "creep" Cady for "bugging" his family, Sam filed a restraining order against him and was awaiting the hearing in 10 days; he also explained to colleague Tom Broadbent (Fred Dalton Thompson) about Cady's motivation for the harrassment - the omission ("burial") of exculpatory evidence by Bowden that Cady's 16 year-old rape victim was promiscuous (with at least three lovers in one month), due to his own justifications and beliefs that Cady was a menacing serial rapist and deserved the punishment no matter what (and the fact that he was illiterate)
  • while Sam was walking downtown, Max again appeared (sporting sharp-looking, white-trash leisure wear or resort clothing) as he drove along in an open red convertible with white leather seats; Max informed Sam about how he had lost his family and became estranged from his young daughter when incarcerated: ("After I went inside, her Mama told her I was dead. Which, in a way, I was"); Cady also revealed that he taught himself to read during his 14 years in prison, and after reading law books had represented himself for an appeal (and learned of Bowden's neglect of exculpatory evidence) - and of course, had learned how to avoid being prosecuted: ("Did you know that after I discharged you, I acted as my own attorney? Applied several times for an appeal"); as a lawyer himself and realizing what Cady was implying, Sam responded with the offer of a bribe of $10,000 in cash to end the "badgering" - but Cady retorted: ("What shall be my compensation, sir, for being held down and sodomized by four white guys? Or four black guys?"); before driving off, Cady implied that money "compensation" would never be enough for 14 lost years: "I don't think you really, really understand what we're talkin' about here"
  • the next instance of intimidation was news from his distraught wife Leigh that their dog had been poisoned to death - but that they hadn't let the dog out; Cady was brought in for questioning
  • while sitting next to Lieut. Elgart (Robert Mitchum - in a cameo) behind a one-way mirror, Sam watched as Cady was brought in for a full-body strip-search; grotesque full-body tattoos were revealed, including apocalyptic Bible verses quoted on his body: "Vengeance Is Mine," "My Time Is At Hand" and "The Lord Is The Avenger" plus a depiction of a broken red heart next to the name Loretta; however, Cady couldn't be charged for lack of proof or evidence and was released, but was fined and warned about further harrassment; during the investigation, it was learned that during his jail time, Cady had inherited $30,000 from the proceeds of the sale of his later mother's farm
Cady's Full Body Search - Revealing His Vengeful Body Tattoos
  • during a 4th of July parade, Sam spotted Cady in the crowd leering at his wife Leigh; after approaching Cady who made lewd comments: ("Mmm, hot as a firecracker on the 4th of July. You're damn lucky to have her, boy"), Sam punched Cady but was pulled away by bystanders who hadn't heard their conversation
  • after the parade in a local bar, Cady met up with Sam's law clerk Lori who was slowly getting drunk after realizing her mistake in falling for Sam and being in unrequited love with him; she was upset that Sam ("the rat") had stood her up for a racquetball play-date; Cady admitted he had just been released from prison - but then lied about his offense - he had punched out a Sheriff while marching in a protest against a nuclear power plant
  • back in Lori's apartment after flirtations, Cady playfully handcuffed her hands behind her back, then viciously bit off a chunk of her right cheek and savagely raped and beat her - sending her to the hospital with a mauled face and broken right arm; the next day, Sam visited her in the hospital but she refused to press charges against Cady - she was too scared or embarrassed to receive negative publicity and destroy her reputation
  • Lieut. Elgart suggested that Sam use his family as bait to cause Cady to act psychopathically, but instead, rather than putting his family in danger, Sam hired private investigator Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) to follow Cady around for a week, write up a report - and possibly prevent any further harrassment
  • Leigh found out the identity of Cady's latest rape victim and suspiciously confronted Sam about his unfaithful behaviors, calling them "sophomoric infidelties" - she swore at him: "You son of a bitch!" and reminded him that this wasn't the first instance of Sam's disloyalty (they had previously uprooted from Atlanta to start over); Sam realized that Cady was deliberately trying to destroy his home life, and hoped they could work as a team to defeat him
  • meanwhile, Kersek stalked Max, and ordered him to leave town; Cady responded with a direct threat if he was triggered: "I could get upset. Things could get outta hand. And then in self-defense, I could do somethin' to you that you would not like"; also, Cady drove by the Bowden home and returned the dead dog's collar to Leigh, claiming he had found it; she recognized him and threatened to call the police on him; she taunted him and called him 'repulsive': ("I've been waitin' to see your face, but now that I see you, you are just repulsive"); Kersek reported back to Sam about the difficulty of ensnaring Cady, and Sam remained cautious about taking the law into his own hands, or using intimidation
  • in the film's most tense and very disturbing, repellent yet fascinating scene, Cady posed as Danielle's new drama teacher, and met with her on the set of a play in the school's auditorium; he proceeded to share a marijuana joint with her and empathized with her troubled personality and teenaged anxieties, before verbally and physically seducing the rebellious, naive, and sexually-curious fifteen-year old daughter Danielle - with her dual responses of fear and excitement; after clever manipulations, he politely asked if he could put his arm around her. She giggled and acted embarrassed by his forwardness, although eventually agreed ("No, I don't mind"); he approached closer, and stroked her face, and was able to insert his thumb into her mouth and she sucked on it. Then he cupped her face, cradled her head, and tenderly kissed her
Cady With Lawyer Lee Heller (Gregory Peck) Hired to Serve a Restraining Order on Sam For Having Thugs Beat Him Up
  • in response to Cady's discovered encounter with Danielle, the desperate Sam ordered Kersek to use physical force by hiring three thugs (for $1,000) to attack Cady in a parking lot the next evening; the plan backfired when Cady viciously countered them, and overpowered and beat all three men - knowing that Sam was observing the entire time from behind dumpster, and taunting him: "Counselor? Counselor, is that you? Counselor, come out, come out, wherever you are! I ain't no white trash piece of s--t. I'm better than you all! I can out-learn you. I can out-reach you. I can out-think you. And I can out-philosophize you. And I'm gonna outlast you. You think a couple whacks to my good ol' boy guts is gonna get me down? It's gonna take a hell of a lot more than that, Counselor, to prove you're better than me!"
  • Cady then reversed the restraining order charges by hiring lawyer Lee Heller (Gregory Peck) to represent him, claiming that he was the victim (with proof of Sam's recorded threats and his own injuries); shocked by the reversal, Sam was threatened with disbarment by the A.B.A. Ethics Committee in a 2-day law session in Raleigh, NC; (this provided an opportunity for Sam and Kersek to initiate a plan to lure Cady to break into the Bowden house and justifiably shoot him dead with the excuse of self-defense)
  • during Sam's faked absence in Raleigh, in the most brutal and unsettling sequence of the film, Cady outfoxed everyone by evading trip-wires and alarms by dressing and disguising himself as the Bowden housekeeper-maid Miss Graciella (Zully Montero) after murdering her; in the Bowden kitchen, he strangled Sam's hired PI Claude Kersek from behind with a piano wire garrotte, and shot him in the head as he struggled (blood showered onto both of them), and then spoke into his ear: "I learned that in prison. You like? White trash piece of s--t!"
Cady's Murder of Bowden's PI Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker)
  • the endangered Bowden family fled from town to spend time on their houseboat on Cape Fear River - not knowing that Cady was strapped onto the undercarriage of their car!
  • during a dramatic final face-off and climactic conclusion amidst a violent storm on the rocky boat, Cady choked Sam on the deck until unconscious, then tied him up; he then proceeded to the kitchen to sexually threaten Danny and Leigh who cowered before him after Danielle's attempt to throw boiling water at Cady failed to stop him; he held up a lit flare that burned bright red as he bragged: "I spent 14 years in an eight-by-nine cell, surrounded by people who were less than human. My mission at that time was to become more than human"; he locked Danny up in the hold while he began to take advantage of Leigh: ("Ready to be born again, Mrs. Bowden? A few minutes alone with me, darlin', and you'll be speakin' in tongues"); when she grabbed for his gun, he cuffed her and dragged the bound Sam inside to witness what he planned to further do to the family; Leigh begged for Cady to stop stomping on Sam, and used the strategy of sympathizing with Cady's pained life ("I've tried to imagine what it must have been like for you all those years locked up in jail...I know about losing time, even losing years. And I know it doesn't compare to jail, but I can understand") - she then offered herself sexually to Cady in place of her daughter ("I want you to do it just with me, not with her")
  • as Cady lit up a cigar in triumph, Danny again attempted to stop Cady by setting him on fire - she badly-burned him with kerosene/lighter fluid, causing him to jump in the water to extinguish the flames; however, the badly-burned Cady climbed back onto the boat and after holding Sam at gunpoint, he began to hold a mock trial against Sam with the family watching, coercing Sam under pressure to admit to being guilty for his malfeasance as his lawyer (by neglecting to reveal the rape victim's promiscuity during Cady's trial 14 years earlier); Cady felt vindicated and declared punishment: ("Now you will learn about loss! Loss of freedom! Loss of humanity! Now you and I will truly be the same"); he also forced the females at gunpoint to start undressing and kneel on the floor before a threat of rape
  • with the heavily-rocking, unmoored houseboat unsteadily heaving about on the river, Cady lost his balance and fell, as Leigh and Danny jumped into the water to escape; then Sam and Cady savagely fought to the death on the crumbling deck; Cady's leg was handcuffed by Sam to a railing pole, as Sam was jerked overboard just before the houseboat crashed into a large boulder
  • as the boat sank, and Sam nearly-drowned but surfaced on the riverbank, he attempted to crush Cady with a large rock, but the boat's remnants floated away out of reach in the tide; Cady began speaking madly in tongues and singing "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand"

Sam's Failed Attempt to Crush Cady's Head With a Boulder

The Drowning End of Max Cady

Family Found Safely Ashore
  • Cady was left to drown in the turbulent waters of the river when the remnants of the boat sank with him attached; Sam washed his hands in the river water and found his family safe on the shore
  • the film was bookended with Danielle's final words in her school's writing assignment (voice-over): "We never spoke about what happened. At least, not to each other. Fear, I suppose, that to remember his name, or what he did, would mean letting him into our dreams. And me, I hardly dream about him anymore. Still, things won't ever be the way they were before he came. But that's all right. Because if you hang on to the past, you die a little every day. And for myself, I know I'd rather live. The End"

Chilling Entrance Scene of Max Cady (Robert De Niro)

Cady's Release From Prison With Thunderclouds in the Sky

Cady in New Essex, NC Movie Theatre - Disruptive and Oblivious to Other Patrons

Sam Bowden's Flirtatious Relationship With Colleague-Law Clerk Lori Davis

Max Cady's Intimidating and Disturbing Discussion with Sam About Seeking Revenge

Cady Leering at Sam's Wife Leigh at 4th of July Parade

Cady's Unsettling Assault on Female Law Clerk (Illeana Douglas)

Lori in Hospital

Private Investigator Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker)

Max Taunting Leigh Outside the Bowden Home

Cady's Seduction of Bowden Daughter Danielle "Danny" (Juliette Lewis)

Bowden Observing the Failed Beat-Down of Cady By Three Thugs

Taunting by Cady of Bowden ("Counselor, Come out, come out, wherever you are!")

Danielle and Leigh Cowering in the Kitchen From Cady Who Was Holding a Burning Flare

On Houseboat, Leigh Offering Herself to Cady to Save Danielle

Cady Badly-Burned After Being Set Ablaze by Danny

At Gunpoint, Cady Conducted a Mock Trial Against Sam In Front of His Family

Cady Just Before Submerging Under the Water For the Last Time


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