20 Things You Never Knew About Cape Fear

A superb psychological thriller, directed by the genius that is Martin Scorsese, Cape Fear tells the terrifying story of a convict who seeks revenge against the public defender whom he blames for his 14-year imprisonment. We remember being absolutely terrified the first time we saw the movie, mostly due to Robert De Niro’s superbly creepy performance, and we suspect that we’re not alone. Below are 20 things that you might not have realised about Cape Fear.


20. It’s a remake of a 1962 movie starring Robert Mitchum as Cady

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Martin Scorsese’s 1991 Cape Fear is actually a remake of a 1962 movie with the same name.

The original starred Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam, and Polly Bergen.

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The 1962 Cape Fear was almost directed by Alfred Hitchcock, until he quit after disagreements with producers.

The 1962 movie was far from an original idea itself, however.

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It was actually based on the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D MacDonald,

19. Steven Spielberg was originally going to direct

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Credit: Universal Pictures

The 1991 Cape Fear was originally being developed by Steven Spielberg, but he eventually decided that it was simply too violent.

He did however stay on as a producer, although this role was uncredited.

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Credit: Universal Pictures

Instead, Spielberg traded with Martin Scorsese, handing over the project to him.

In return, Spielberg returned to  Schindler’s List, which Scorsese had decided not to make.

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Credit: Universal Pictures

There is a nod to Spielberg in the use of an iconic shooting star shot.

18. Scorsese wanted Harrison Ford for Sam Bowden, but Ford was only interested in playing Cady

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Martin Scorsese wanted Harrison Ford to play Sam Bowden, but Ford said he would only sign on if he could play Max Cady.

This would be the part that Robert De Niro would eventually take.

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Despite having worked with Nick Nolte in his 1989 movie New York Stories, Scorsese did not have him in mind to play Sam Bowden.

However, Nolte had different ideas, and was keen to land the role.

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Luckily, he eventually managed to convince the director to cast him in the role.

17. Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon both blew their auditions to play Danielle

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Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon both auditioned for the role of Danielle Bowden, the part that was eventually played by Juliette Lewis to amazing effect.

However, both have since revealed that they totally blew their auditions.

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Barrymore described her audition as the ‘biggest disaster’ of her life, explaining that she ‘acted all over the place’.

Witherspoon seemingly fared no better, “It was my second audition ever,” the actress explained.

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“My agent told me I’d be meeting Martin Scorsese. I said, ‘Who is he?’ Then he mentioned the name Robert De Niro. I said, ‘Never heard of him.’ When I walked in I did recognise De Niro, and I just lost it. My hand was shaking and I was a blubbering idiot.”

16. It features appearances by three of the original movie’s cast

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As well as starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Joe Don Baker and Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear also features three members of the cast of the original 1962 version.

As well as Robert Mitchum playing Lieutenant Elgart and Gregory Peck playing Lee Heller, Martin Balsam also makes a cameo appearance.

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Scorsese had also been keen to hire Telly Savalas, but he was unfortunately not so enthusiastic.

This would end up being Peck’s final film appearance prior to his death in 2003.

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Peck and Mitchum reportedly didn’t get on quite so well as their 1991 counterparts, meaning that the pair had no cameos as a duo.

15. For their roles, Robert De Niro bulked up while Nolte lost weight

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Because Nick Nolte is actually taller than Robert De Niro, he had to lose weight in preparation for the role, whilst De Niro had to bulk up so he looked like he was the stronger of the two.

De Niro underwent a full body transformation for the role, reportedly reducing his body fat percentage to just 4%.

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De Niro was a dedicated gym-goer, determined to beef up to create the the bad-man image the role required.

Apparently, the actor spent three hours per day, six days a week, working on his image prior to filming.

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Once shooting had started, De Niro upped his game even further, working out for an impressive five hours per day.

14. De Niro had his teeth ground down to make him look more menacing

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We’ve already established that De Niro went to extremes for Cape Fear, but he didn’t stop at working out.

To play the film’s villain, Robert De Niro paid a dentist $5,000 to have his teeth ground down.

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This was so he would look more menacing as Max Cady, and his plan clearly paid off.

De Niro then had to fork out a further $25,000 to have his teeth restored to their former state after the movie’s production was over.

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Surely there are easier, and less expensive ways to create this illusion?

13. The high school scene between De Niro and Juliette Lewis was completely ad-libbed

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The famously uncomfortable finger-sucking scene between Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis was completely ad-libbed by the actors.

Lewis had no idea what to expect after being warned by the director that De Niro was planning to improvise the sequence.

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Lewis soon got into the scene, however, sticking his thumb in her mouth and allowing herself to relax into the role.

Two cameras were set up, one on each actor, and the scene was filmed just three times.

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Despite this, it seems the pair had it in the bag from the start, as the director ended up using the very first take.

12. De Niro and Juliette Lewis were both Oscar-nominated for the film

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Cape Fear received mostly positive reviews from critics, with reviews praising the  its performances, direction, cinematography and editing.

Roger Ebert was effusive in his praise, saying “Cape Fear is impressive movie-making, showing Scorsese as a master of a traditional Hollywood genre who is able to mould it to his own themes and obsessions.”

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Credit: Universal Pictures

In addition, the movie received both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor for Robert De Niro, and Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Lewis.

De Niro was clearly the standout performer, with the Rotten Tomatoes consensus reading “Smart and stylish, Cape Fear is a gleefully mainstream shocker from Martin Scorsese, with a terrifying Robert De Niro performance.”.

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It holds an impressive rating of 73% on the site, with an average score of 7.06/10.

11. It was the seventh of ten collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro

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Credit: Gonzague Petit Trabal via Flickr

Cape Fear was the seventh out of ten movie collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

And the other nine movies that saw them team up?

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They are Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino, The Audition, and The Irishman.

Many of their collaborations are considered some of the best films of all time.

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De Niro’s iconic line in Taxi Driver, ‘are you talkin’ to me?’, has become a memorable favourite.

10. De Niro was uncomfortable auditioning Juliette Lewis

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The responsibility of casting Danielle fell to De Niro, and Lewis was the first person he auditioned.

The interview took place in a Beverly Hills hotel room, and according to Lewis, De Niro seemed uncomfortable at first.

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He was unused to auditioning young girls, and Lewis was just 14 years old at the time.

‘I said, ‘If you want to see if I can act, just look at this movie-of-the-week I’ve done,”‘ explained Lewis.

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Lewis was not the only one vying for the part, with Moira Kelly, Fairuza Balk, and Martha Plimpton also auditioning for the role.

9. Juliette Lewis went to her audition alone

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Lewis was just 14 at the time of auditioning, but was incredibly confident for her age.

“All the other girls came in with their moms,” the actress explained.

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Lewis had been emancipated from her parents age just 14 in order to overcome child labour laws.

Lewis is not the only young actor to have been emancipated from their parents as a child.

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Credit: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com via Wikimedia Commons

Macaulay Culkin also followed suit, as well as Drew Barrymore and Michelle Williams.

8. Illeana Douglas based her character on a real murder victim

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Illeana Douglas played the role of Lori Davis, and drew upon a real life murder victim for inspiration for her character.

This was eighteen year old Jennifer Levin who, in 1986, was found brutally murdered in Central Park, NYC.

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Jennifer Levin

Robert Chambers was found to be responsible for her murder, and chillingly, had hidden in the darkness as police surveyed the scene.

“I was the one who suggested my part,” Douglas claimed. “The original part was called ‘The Drifter.’ She didn’t even have a name.”

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Douglas described how she had been deeply affected by Levin’s murder, saying “I tried to put myself in the position of somebody who’s new to New York, who’s young, who doesn’t see anything bad coming.”

7. Scorsese was creeped out by De Niro’s southern accent

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De Niro decided Cady would suit a southern accent, and that it would add to his maniacal character.

De Niro fully immersed himself in the role, and visited the deep south to perfect his southern drawl.

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He even recorded the locals speaking so that he could imitate them and sound as authentic as possible.

However, Scorsese soon became concerned that the character was perhaps just a little too creepy.

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De Nero played on Scorsese’s fear, ringing up and leaving voicemails in the character’s accent.

6. The soundtrack consisted of recycled tracks

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A haunting soundtrack is a key element in any good thriller, used to create suspense and highlighting key moments.

However, composer Elmer Bernstein initially struggled with the score, claiming that he was in a ‘state of depression’ as the film was so depressing.

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Credit: MSGT Deal Toney via Wikimedia Commons

He adapted Bernard Herrmann’s 1962 score from the original movie, although Bernstein claimed Herrmann would have hated the idea.

Some scenes from the 1991 version were not included in the original film, which left Bernstein with quite the conundrum.

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The composer decided to take some of Herrmann’s rejected scores from Torn Curtain, which Bernstein described as ‘very effective’.

5. De Niro’s tattoos have hidden meanings

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Ne Niro may have gone to extreme measures for the role, but he drew the line at getting inked.

Instead, he agreed to have tattoos applied which were made of vegetable dye, which would only last a few months.

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De Niro was heavily involved in the artistic elements of the tattoos and the meanings behind them.

Recently, the production notes for the film were discovered, revealing an annotated picture of De Niro’s body art.

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He selected bible verses related to vengeance and redemption, and the team chose the cross laden with scales to represent his character’s weighted revenge plan.

4. The opening sequence revealed a big clue to the plot

In the opening, we are introduced to Cady, showcasing him mid-workout.

However, there is one moment when we see something which would give a pretty big clue as to the plot.

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On Cady’s bookshelf there is a book titled ‘The Cell Within’, a novel by Jake Manning.

This book doesn’t actually exist, but can be seen in a Miami Vice episode of the same name.

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The plot of this episode bares stark resemblance to Cape Fear, consisting of a detective being taken hostage and tortured by an ex convict.

3. A tropical depression halted the production

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The scene in the swamp is one of the most memorable and iconic moments of the film.

It was filmed in John U. Lloyd State Park, located in the middle of a Mangrove Swamp.

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However, the filming for this scene didn’t quite go to plan, and was hindered by an extreme weather event.

Unfortunately, a tropical depression set over the swamp, wreaking mayhem on the set.

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The film crew had to wait for days for it to pass before filming could resume.

2. Douglas’ torture scene took its toll on him

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The scene in which Cady tortures Davis was a huge undertaking, and took two days to complete.

According to Douglas, it was a painful experience, with the actress claiming that “my arms really were quite banged up”.

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At one point, De Niro jumped of the bed and started whispering to the director and Douglas feared she would be fired as he was struggling to film the scene.

The director then told her “you’re done”, by which stage she could barely walk due to pain and exhaustion.

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It was then that De Niro praised her for his performance, and she realised she had in fact not been fired, much to her relief.

1. The houseboat scenes were shot inside

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Surprisingly, the houseboat scenes were actually shot on an inside set.

A soundstage was made especially for the production, and featured a 90-foot water tank.

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The crew used water and rain machines in order to achieve the desired effect of a torrential storm.

According to producer Barbara de Fina, “It was hard making that commitment to build something so big”.

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“In the overview, I guess the amount of money we spent to build the tank we’ll save by not having to worry about things like weather and tides and alligators.”