Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Props for De Niro's Props
Film still. Click to enlarge.

Film still from Taxi Driver (1976). Robert De Niro collection.

Lighter. Click to enlarge.

A cigarette lighter used by De Niro's character Max Cady in Cape Fear.
Photo by Pete Smith

This piece originally appeared on "Further Findings," a blog that tracks research at The University of Texas at Austin.

We thought there might be an item that stood out in the 1,300 boxes or so of papers, film, movie props and costumes that Robert De Niro donated to the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

We asked curators of collection, which has just been opened to researchers and the public, if they came across anything that was pretty darned cool.

From Robert De Niro? An actor known for his preparation, focus and intensity?

How about a pair of bikini cigarette lighters?

Those are props from Cape Fear, a 1991 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, chosen by Helen Adair, the Ransom Center's associate curator of performing arts.

In the movie, De Niro plays Max Cady, a convict who thinks his lawyer, played by Nick Nolte, allowed him to be wrongfully convicted and sent to prison for 14 years. Out of prison, Cady comes to town to wreak vengeance on the Nolte character, his wife, Jessica Lange, and their daughter, Juliette Lewis.

"The plastic rubber fobs, which may have been cigarette lighters, are shaped like a woman's torso," Adair says. "The torsos are wearing bikinis with polka dots, and the nipples consist of tiny red lights attached to a circuit board, suggesting that they lit up when the cigarette lighter was used.

"They are truly awful, and at the same time, they're a wonderful example of how props shape and reinforce a character," she says. "When I see those key chains, I can't help but be reminded of how seedy Max Cady is. Only he would own those things."

A properly positioned prop can provide subtle character details that viewers are not consciously aware of. Props send signals about who at character is, where he's been and how he's lived.

"Props provide an opportunity for the actor to portray a character realistically, on an intimate scale that can be immediately understood by the audience," Adair says. "The cigarette lighters from Cape Fear allow De Niro to emphasize the sleaziness of Max Cady, and they bring dramatic focus to a particular cinematic moment in the film."

The lighter appears in a scene in which Cady, sitting in his car, is spying on his prey.

"There's a close-up of the lighter when he (Cady) lights his cigar (also in the collection), and thus the audience begins to see that Cady is a sexual predator," Adair says.

As scholars research De Niro's movies, particularly his collaborations with Scorsese, they will look at such props as choices the actor and director, as well as the wardrobe and art departments, made that affect what's on the screen.

Would the scene have the same effect if Cady's lighter had been a disposable Bic or even a Zippo? The main message of impending mayhem might have registered, but it wouldn't have resonated as deeply.

Steve Wilson, associate curator of film at the Ransom Center, makes a point about the green Army jacket De Niro wore when he played Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a 1976 movie, also directed by Scorsese.

The jacket let the audience know that Bickle was a recently returned Vietnam veteran, although that fact was not mentioned in the script.

A "King Kong Company" patch with a "Kong" gorilla head wearing a military helmet is on the left arm of the jacket. That, Wilson says, was a clue to Bickle's state of mind, which was crazy and getting crazier.

—Tim Green