Roger Ebert Home

A film critic's modest proposal

Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear."

An open letter to the "Teenage Film Panelists" at certain other newspapers:

A new thriller has opened, starring Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange. There are supporting performances by Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. And those are the terms in which 95 percent of moviegoers think of "Cape Fear." But if you read the critics, you would have heard about a man named Martin Scorsese, who directed the film, and maybe something about Bernard Herrmann, who has been dead for 15 years, but whose musical score was used in the picture.

There is a gulf between people who go to the movies (the public) and people whose lives revolve around them (critics, movie buffs, academics, people in the business). For most people with seven bucks in their pocket and an evening free, there is only one question about "Cape Fear" that is relevant: Will I have a good time? The "good time" may depend on whether the moviegoer has an appetite for violence, or is a fan of one of the stars, but it will not depend on whether the film was directed by Martin Scorsese. Importance of Scorsese

That's why I question myself when I write a review like the one about "Cape Fear." I tried to say whether the filmgoer would have a good time, and I had something to say about the actors. But my central concern was with Scorsese, who I think is the best director at work in the world today, and whose career is therefore the most interesting single aspect of my job. I wondered whether it was good news or bad that he had a multipicture deal with Steven Spielberg and Universal, that he was working with a $34 million budget for the first time, and that he could use stars like Nolte, Lange and De Niro without asking them to defer their usual salaries. Would he gain Hollywood but lose his soul?

Those are questions that may not be fascinating to everybody who reads the daily paper. Maybe some were interested in the fact that Mitchum and Peck had starred in the 1962 version of the same film, but I imagine almost nobody was interested in the fact that Scorsese had recycled the original score that Bernard Herrmann wrote for the 1962 movie. And if I had written that Herrmann was also the composer of the music for "Citizen Kane," "Psycho" (1960) and "Taxi Driver," would that have made any difference?

Writing daily film criticism is a balancing act between the bottom line and the higher reaches, between the answers to the questions, (1) Is this movie worth my money?, and (2) Does this movie expand or devalue my information about human nature? Critics who write so everybody can understand everything are actually engaging in a kind of ventriloquism -- working as their own dummies. They are pretending to know less than they do. But critics who write for other critics are hardly more honest, since they are sending a message to millions that only hundreds will understand. It's a waste of postage.

Writing the "Cape Fear" review, I had to deal with my own fear that the director who is most important to me seemed to be turning away from the material he was born to film, big-city life in the second half of this century. Scorsese, whose "GoodFellas" was the best movie of 1990, has for 1991 made a movie that, in the long run, will not be very important to his career. It is a good movie, and he has changed the original story (good vs. evil) to reflect his own vision (guilt vs. evil). But Scorsese's soul was not on the line here.

In taking this director-oriented approach, I went through a sort of self-justification. I've written at length about every one of Scorsese's movies. I assume some of my readers have followed along, and share my interest. I can't write as if everybody was born yesterday, and doesn't know anything that is not in today's paper. One of the reasons I like the British papers is because they assume you know who "Thatcher" is, even if they don't preface her name with the words "Former British Prime Minister Margaret." Others couldn't care less

But there are no doubt many readers who could care less about Great American Filmmaker Martin ("Raging Bull") Scorsese. To them, I owe the responsibility of writing a review that will be readable -- not jargon -- and will give an accurate notion of the movie they are thinking of going to see. And I need to tell them that "Cape Fear" stands aside from other current thrillers like "Deceived" and "Ricochet" because it is made by a man with an instinctive mastery of the medium.

What I do not owe any reader is simplistic populism. Some newspapers have started using panels of "teen critics" as an adjunct to their staff professionals. These panels seem to be an admission of defeat by the editors; they imply that the newspaper has readers who cannot be bothered by the general tone of the editorial product, and must be addressed in self-congratulatory prose by their peers. "Sneak Previews," a television program of movie reviewing, has copied this approach by adding their own teenage experts, on the assumption that a relative lack of experience and background is an asset.

What is happening here seems to be endemic in a lot of American journalism: People read the papers not in the hopes of learning something new, but in the expectation of being told what they already know. This is a form of living death. Its apotheosis is the daily poll in USA Today, which informs "us" what percentage of a small number of unscientifically selected people called a toll number to vote on questions that cannot possibly be responded to with a "yes" or "no."

Back to the movies. What if a poll discovered that less than one in 20 of the people attending "Cape Fear" know or care who Martin Scorsese is? Would that be a good reason I shouldn't write about him? I ask these questions here because I sometimes ask them of myself. Everybody who works for a mass-circulation publication has to ask them, at one time or another. I guess the answer is halfway between what you want to know and what else I want to tell you. Eventually you'll know more than I do, and then you can have the job.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sweet Dreams
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas
The Long Game
Sasquatch Sunset


comments powered by Disqus