Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is first and foremost a work-for-hire directing job; this doesn’t make it a lesser film, simply a movie he didn’t attach himself to from the beginning. Released 20 years ago this month, Cape Fear was the bookend to that other thriller released earlier in the year, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Yes, 1991 saw America’s top two filmmakers try their hands at psychological thrillers – adult horror stories, really – and the results were movies that wiped away the last remaining residue of ‘80s exploitation – mechanized shocks designed to elicit robotic responses. With Lambs, Demme, who had up to that point made a name for himself as the most humane of American directors, used his training from working for Roger Corman to execute an unrelenting serial-killer thriller. What made the movie special was Demme’s refusal to sacrifice humanity for easy scares. He turned the platonic doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and F.B.I. trainee Clarice Starling into one of movie history’s unlikeliest love stories. Even when dealing with monsters like Hannibal the Cannibal or Buffalo Bill, Demme was incapable of seeing then as just monsters. He had to locate their humanity. With Cape Fear, Scorsese left behind his comfort zone of big-city streets to tell an intimate story of a seemingly normal family imploding. His ongoing exploration of sin and guilt – whether it is ever too late for a man who has done wrong to be saved – courses through every frame of Cape Fear. Both films were big hits, but while Lambs became a zeitgeist movie complete with a character cementing a permanent place in our collective imagination, Cape Fear might be, in hindsight, the more disturbing of the two.
For some critics, Cape Fear was seen as a placeholder, an attempt by Scorsese to earn some financial security so he could make his more “personal” stories. (The film was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, with Spielberg wanting to produce his friend’s most financially successful film. Cape Fear remained Scorsese’s top grosser until Gangs of New York.) Like The King of Comedy in 1983, Cape Fear was the follow-up to an artistic triumph for Scorsese. King came after Raging Bull; Cape Fear came after GoodFellas. It may be hard to believe, but even as critically acclaimed as GoodFellas was, it was still an underrated movie, and its decent box office showing gives little indication of the film’s current standing in the culture. (It would take Tarantino’s mix of violence and humor – and shock – for audiences to go back and re-evaluate the genius of GoodFellas.) Cape Fear was not Scorsese’s first instance as a work-for-hire director. Ellen Burstyn had picked him to direct her starring vehicle Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Of all the ‘70s feminist pictures, Alice remains the best precisely because it dares to suggest that the Burstyn character isn’t interested in a man to complete her. Scorsese also brought a sense of dangerous unpredictability, especially in the scenes with Harvey Keitel. In 1986 he directed The Color of Money, a hard-boiled character piece that checked in on “Fast” Eddie Felson from The Hustler. Yes, even Scorsese was seduced into making that go-to staple of the 1980s: a sequel. The movie allowed Scorsese to play with music cues, montages and the expectations of the sports movie formula. It also allowed him to deconstruct the movie star iconography of Paul Newman. (Along with Top Gun, it also helped Tom Cruise form his image as an All-American go-getter.) The Color of Money is a lot of fun, with Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio kicking its energy level into the stratosphere. (You can feel some of the energy leak out of the movie when they are off-screen.) But Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price blink by not giving the audience what they want; the decision of not having a showdown between Newman and Cruise reeks of “integrity,” as if Scorsese couldn’t bring himself to completely surrender to Hollywood conventions. (Luckily Newman’s delivery of his last line saves the day. It’s a classic star exit.)
But Cape Fear felt different. From the outside it looked like Scorsese might be going on autopilot by signing on to do a remake of a forgotten Gregory Peck star vehicle. The original Cape Fear was a somewhat soft adaptation of a lean piece of pulp by John D. MacDonald about a tight-knit family being terrorized by convicted rapist Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) who holds lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) responsible for his conviction. Released barely a month after To Kill a Mockingbird, the sight of Peck as an upstanding family man and lawyer who’ll do anything to protect his family was already starting to define him. Director J. Lee Thompson did a solid job of clearly defining good and evil, with Peck as everyone’s protector. The wild card in the movie was Mitchum’s unsettling performance as a man entitled to seek revenge on someone he felt was impossibly upstanding. (With Peck in the role, we have no problem believing he’s flawless.) Mitchum was able to suggest his malevolent nature as almost a virus, capable of infecting even the most honest and innocent of people. Like Norman Bates, Mitchum’s Max Cady was a portent of a shift in society’s identification with weakness.
And it is Mitchum’s performance that’s the jumping-off point for the Scorsese version. (You can imagine a young “Marty” enjoying the squareness of the original, but really lighting up whenever Cady showed up.) The screenplay by Wesley Strick re-works both the book and original film and comes up with its own modern-day moral universe. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is now a former public defender and currently a successful prosecutor in the affluent New South community of New Essex, North Carolina. Sam’s wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is a graphic designer with just a trace of emotional instability, and their daughter Danni (Juliette Lewis) is your typical 15-year-old who retreats into music and talking on the phone to avoid her parents’ drama. The sly joke of this updated version of the Bowden family is that from the outside they look like your typical, well-adjusted family, and it isn’t until an outside force disturbs their delicate harmony that simmering resentments and old wounds come to the surface and threaten to destroy them.
And that’s where Max Cady (Robert De Niro) enters the scene. His rage at Sam is not only palpable, it is justified. It’s revealed that Sam defended Cady for rape and battery 14 years ago, and in the process of preparing a defense, he buried a report that said the girl Cady raped was promiscuous. For Scorsese, Sam’s “moral” choice to protect the community by violating his oath has rendered him a fallen man who has forsaken his rights to protection from the law – and God. Cady, who was illiterate at the time of his conviction, has become a self-taught man and intends for Sam to “learn about loss.”
This would be De Niro’s second-to-last collaboration with Scorsese, which seems appropriate as Cady represents the final evolution of a character they’ve been exploring throughout their work together. From Johnny Boy to Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta to Rupert Pupkin to now Max Cady, these have been portraits of men who demand to be noticed. (“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads! Here is a man who would not take it anymore! […] Here is a man who stood up!”) Obscenely pumped-up and covered with tattooed Biblical quotes that make him look like a walking advertisement for the Apocalypse, talking in a soothing Southern drawl that would be charming if didn’t make every word sound dirty, De Niro’s Cady is more than an Avenging Angel. He’s a man who refuses to allow anyone to think they’re better than anyone else, let alone him. (Cady’s class resentment against those who look at him as “white trash” fuels his vanity as he constantly sculpts his body.) While Hannibal Lecter is locked away in his cell, almost dignified in his choice of victims, Cady is on the loose and capable of lashing out at anyone who dares to think they’re smarter than him. (Chances are they’re not.) It’s a great performance by De Niro, who plays Cady as almost mythic in his power and intelligence, but someone who, in the end, is also one of us.
Scorsese’s trademark hard-charging editing rhythms are not present in Cape Fear. This film is quieter, more patient as it slowly ratchets up the tension. When the movie does indulge in editorial flourishes – the quick montage of Sam locking the doors and closing the windows, or when the family is startled by the sudden ringing of a telephone – they’re like spasms of relief. The way editor Thelma Schoonmaker lays in insert shots of, say, a hand grabbing a gun or the tapping of broken piano key (aided sometimes by a stinger from Elmer Bernstein’s re-working of Bernard Herrmann’s terrifically ominous score) keeps us off balance, as if even inanimate objects are ready to pounce. Insinuation is the name of the game.
Cady starts to stalk the family before they even know someone is watching them. (There’s a nice Scorseseian touch of having Cady light a big cigar and laugh obnoxiously during a movie – the ultimate offense to any movie lover.) Sam’s guilt over not providing the best defense his client is afforded manifests itself whenever Cady is around. (As the movie begins he’s resisting pressure from his boss to manipulate the law in a potentially unethical way in order to procure some hidden money.) The more Cady circles the Bowdens the guiltier Sam looks. When he attempts to pay off Cady, we side with Cady’s disgust at such a pathetic appeal to his intelligence. The way he systematically breaks down Sam’s money offer in terms of daily earnings makes clear his intentions are more sinister. (The way De Niro breaks down the numbers like an accountant is funny in its logic, and serves as an early version of the scene in Casino where he tries to account for Sharon Stone going on a spending spree with her pimp boyfriend.)
At first the Bowden women are excited by this unseen threat lurking about. They see it as a distraction to break up the monotony of summer. The possibility of sex and violence colliding runs throughout Cape Fear, with the erotic charge that can occur when you’re in the proximity of evil permeating the film’s more disturbing sequences. Leigh is turned on by the idea of someone intimidating her husband; intimations of Sam’s past indiscretions allow her to tease and taunt him. (After a bout of ordinary Saturday night sex, Leigh gets up and applies makeup as if preparing for a date.) She quickly gets over her curiosity about Cady after she meets him in the harsh light of reality. Cady, however, is more interested in getting to Sam through the more vulnerable women in his life. He first targets Lori (Illeana Douglas), the co-worker Sam’s been carrying on a more or less innocent flirtation with. The scene where Cady assaults her is the most shocking in the film. The sudden cut from Cady and Lori sitting at a bar to the two of them on her bed never fails to startle audiences, and while the actual violence in the scene is brief, it’s so brutal that audiences always seem to claim they see more than is actually shown. Scorsese knows what he’s implying is far worse than anything he could show. (Compared to the prison escape sequence in Lambs, this scene is almost restrained.) When the actual assault begins, Scorsese cuts to an outside shot where we see Cady’s silhouette through a bedroom window doing unspeakable things. It’s interesting how some audience members and even some critics reacted negatively to Cape Fear’s slow-burn inevitability, as if Scorsese was being penalized for making a thriller that was too effective. He was accused in some quarters of being mean, gleefully rubbing our noses in our willingness to be manipulated. (Hitchcock was accused of the same thing.) I guess it boils down to Cape Fear rooting itself in the real-world fear of the sanctity of the family being violated while The Silence of the Lambs tapped into the more abstract fears of abandonment and a woman’s need to assert herself in a male-dominated world. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that the psychological violence of Cape Fear trumps the ritualistic violence of Lambs. It stays with you.
The film’s most famous scene is all about psychological terror as Danni, having to take summer classes as punishment for being caught with marijuana, is seduced by Cady, posing as the school’s new drama teacher. The scene, with improvisations enhancing Strick’s finely detailed writing, is not fueled by something as obvious as Danni’s attraction to evil. Instead, Cady shows how disarming he can be. He validates Danni in a way her parents don’t. When she asks him why he hates her dad, he tells her he wants to save him – “I pray for him.” Earlier, we saw how Sam dotes on Danni and is still capable of talking to her. Now, we watch in mounting horror as Cady severs that bond. The scene plays likes a primal version of a father’s dread of when his daughter no longer needs his protection. Nolte’s beautifully understated performance peaks in the scene where he confronts Danni about her encounter with Cady. His look of rage and anguish is heartbreaking as he realizes his daughter in not a little girl anymore.
The final act of the movie consists of two set-pieces. The first is a hide-and-wait trap orchestrated by private investigator Kersek (Joe Don Baker) as a way to set up Cady for breaking into the Bowden house in order to justifiably execute him. Baker is so winning that it’s almost cruel: we know he’s doomed. Scorsese has fun playing with the conventions of the situation, complete with false alarms that lull us into thinking maybe everything will be alright. The big reveal of Cady right before he kills Kersek is a wicked homage to Psycho, and Scorsese ends the sequence with a gruesome bit of slapstick as Sam slips on some blood. It’s precisely at this moment that the family starts to bring itself together. (At one point Leigh wonders, “I’d like to know just how strong we are…or how weak.”) A shot of the Bowdens driving to their houseboat is like a skewered version of a typical American family on vacation. It’s when the Bowdens are on their boat, cut off from the rest or the world, that the movie enters another world. Thinking they have escaped their problems, Cady emerges to force the issue. Scorsese uses the works – matte painting, optical effects, extreme close-ups, a dizzying shot of the camera spinning around as things go topsy-turvy – to place us on that boat in that moment. (Shooting in widescreen for the first time, you feel Scorsese’s glee in being able to use the entire frame.) And at the center is Cady putting Sam “on trial,” with his family as jury, for his crimes, his sins. We realize that Cady wants to destroy Sam and his family in order to save them – and himself. The final shot of Cady (a recall to the opening-credit sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass) shows him at peace with the Bowdens. They are a family again. While the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs leaves you with a laugh, the ending of Cape Fear leaves you spent as you emerge from its spell shaken. Cape Fear was just a warm-up for Scorsese tackling psychological violence. His follow-up would be even more brutal: The Age of Innocence.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.