Going Through Hell to Reach Paradise: Cape Fear at 30

It’s another day that ends with the letter “y,” so it’s time to talk about Martin Scorsese again. Sorry that this man is so prolific! Sorry that his career is so varied! Sorry that his cinematic output is so singularly an extension of his array of influences, interests, and inspirations that every film is worth analyzing to an almost embarrassingly detailed degree!  

Of course, there is nothing to apologize for when it comes to our favorite Italian-American dad and how great he is at his job. And what stands out more and more as Scorsese’s filmography grows deeper is his particular adeptness at transforming a predictable, even familiar, narrative into something uniquely imbued with his own essence. For those who (wrongly) think Scorsese only makes gangster stories, he’ll provide the virulently anti-nostalgia epic The Irishman. For those who assume the good-cop/bad-cop subgenre is overdone, he offers the magnificently precise portrait of corruptive power in The Departed. And for those who (again, wrongly) insist that Scorsese’s use of female characters is misogynistic, consider his 1991 remake of Cape Fear—a revamp that not only acknowledges the wide sprawl of toxic masculinity but also captures how a man’s defense of woman can be less about honor and more about ownership. 

“Is marriage synonymous with deception?” asks Illeana Douglas’s besotted court clerk Lori of the object of her affection, lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). But Cape Fear poses a more sprawling version of this query that speaks to Scorsese’s ever-present interest in religion and faith: Is living synonymous with sin? 

Scorsese has never been precious about remakes, nor has he ever been coy about his religious beliefs. From Mean Streets to The Last Temptation of Christ to Silence, the former altar boy who aspired to priesthood before veering toward filmmaking has examined what we believe, how we believe, and why we believe. And Cape Fear dives into those questions, the murk and depth and darkness of them, with an awareness of how uncomfortable those answers might make us. What kind of vows do we make to ourselves, to our fellow humans, and to whomever or whatever we consider to be a higher power? Who holds us to those promises, and what do we owe when we break them? 

“I am like God, and God like me,” proclaims Robert De Niro’s Max Cady, a rapist and abuser who preys on girls, who manipulates their desires for freedom and autonomy, and who considers violence his divine right. Cady is a bad man. But the lawyer who swore to defend him in court, Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden, withheld evidence and swayed the decision in a way that landed Cady in prison for 14 years. Bowden is not a good man. Does that make them equally sinful? Or does Bowden’s subtle vigilantism make his choice morally, if not legally, right? Does Cady have a point that Bowden broke a sacred promise? If so, does Cady deserve the opportunity to even the score? A punishment and a pilgrimage, a tempter and a virgin, a sacrifice and a sacrament, a halo and hell. We’re all sinners here, and we’re all headed down the road to Cape Fear River. 

“I’m bound for the Promised Land.”

Scorsese’s source material for Cape Fear is twofold: the 1957 novel The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald, and the 1962 film from director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) and screenwriter James R. Webb (How the West Was Won). The first film adaptation follows the broad strokes of the novel: A lawyer witnesses and interrupts a sexual assault, and his testimony lands the assailant in prison for about a decade. When that man is released, he goes after the attorney’s family, fixating on his teenage daughter, and the two men become locked in a battle over right and wrong. 

North Carolina’s Cape Fear River isn’t a component of MacDonald’s novel, but as an invention of Webb and Thompson, it adds desperation and tension to the first film’s final act. A comfortingly righteous Gregory Peck and an especially creepy Robert Mitchum are wonderfully oppositional throughout, and their physicality emboldens the concluding life-and-death duel. Around them is a moodily noir aesthetic that reflects the narrative’s irreversible conflict, with recurring references to Alfred Hitchcock’s fondness for bizarre angles, tight frames, and jarring scores. 

The ending of the first Cape Fear, though, with its trust in the police, the criminal justice system, and the idea of law and order, is a reflection of both its mid-century time and its masculine lens. A good man knows how to defeat a bad man, and order is restored when the bad guy is sent back to prison. Everything is absolutely fine! Women are saved! Rejoice! 

That’s not reality, of course. And although cinema does not need to abide by such a responsibility, it’s appreciable how Scorsese’s 1991 version is a reflection of its time, too—with an awareness that women often aren’t believed when they accuse a man of harassment, assault, or rape; are usually blamed for the violence against them; and live every day with the knowledge that just one man has the power to make their life agony. It’s impressive, really, how Scorsese’s Cape Fear communicates the undeviating nature of our patriarchal society and how its safeguarding of women often manifests as controlling them. 

The lawyer who thinks he’s protecting a woman’s reputation by distorting information. The lawyer’s boss, who bristles at his subordinate’s seemingly unethical actions, but then demands special legal treatment for his own daughter. A wife and daughter who are lied to, deceived, dismissed, and eventually seen as little more than physical commodities by both the man they consider family and the man stalking said family. Sure, the scene of Juliette Lewis sucking on De Niro’s thumb is an aggressively, purposefully uncomfortable Lolita moment. But the sexualization of Lewis’s character is not only true to the transitional period of adolescence and to the longing that occurs in that gap between not a girl, not yet a woman, but also to the implied trust a heteronormative society trains girls to feel toward men. They’re more knowledgeable, more experienced, more wise. They’ll teach you what you don’t know. Won’t you smile, sweetheart? 

Cape Fear at first digs into that gender divide by following Sam Bowden, his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange), and their tempestuous daughter Danny (Lewis). Years ago, Sam stepped out on Leigh, and the relationship has been fractured ever since—and Danny senses it. That familial schism is already in place when ex-convict Cady is released from prison and immediately tracks down Sam, who had been Cady’s public defender in a rape and battery case and whom the man blames for landing him behind bars. Wherever Sam and his family go, Cady is there: at the movies, at the ice cream parlor, at home. And then, wherever Danny is alone, Cady is there, too: on her private phone line, in her school’s basement theater. As Sam grows increasingly frantic about how Cady is targeting his family, Danny grows softly curious about Cady, and seduced by how he treats her as the adult woman her parents do not. 

That’s half of Cape Fear, and its increasing anxiety is elevated by the deft hand of Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Her manipulation of quick cuts, rapid zooms, and extreme closeups builds an atmosphere of surreal doom that is complemented by how Scorsese floods frames in red, yellow, and green and then reverses light and dark. Who are we on the inside, Scorsese seems to ask, and how do our surroundings and our choices subsume and consume us? And the other half of the film, with a screenplay from Wesley Strick that compares Sam’s lies and betrayals with Cady’s grotesque abuses, takes Cape Fear in a divine direction that probes at similar considerations of interiority and individuality. 

A terrifying, and terrifyingly charming, De Niro sells Cady as a man whose chip on his shoulder threatens to overwhelm his entire body. His kitschy outfits (shiny, red, animal-print underwear; a silky white driver’s cap; an array of loudly patterned bowling shirts) belie a deep anger at odds with the casualness of his outward appearance. He sees in God an ally who can affirm his intelligence, help him combat his “white trash” reputation, and aid him in smiting others—some real Old Testament shit. Although he uses loopholes in the legal system to threaten Sam’s family, it’s clear that who he really believes is helping him is a higher power honored by Cady’s tattoos of a gigantic cross, Bible verses, and the words “truth” and “justice,” and unbothered by Cady’s psychopathy toward women. 

Meanwhile, as Sam tumbles down into immorality and cowardliness and further abandons whatever law and order in which he once believed, Cape Fear compels us to draw parallels between these men. They both believe they’re owed adoration by young women. They both know how to fight dirty, physically or figuratively. And the vigilantism to which they turn is driven by their own sense that they are better than all those other men. Cady believes he can get away with his plan, Sam believes he can get away with his, and they both believe they’ve been chosen. “I pray for him,” Cady says of Sam, and that’s both a threat and a supplication. In the film’s final moments, Sam falls to his knees, his bloody palms evoking a stigmata and his pose signaling a plea. These men are more alike than they might want to admit, and that’s because, Cape Fear argues, all men might be more alike than they want to admit. “I’d like to know just how strong we are, or how weak,” Leah asks, but who has the answer to that musing lament? Man, woman, or God? All of us, or none of us? Cape Fear might not know, but with the nuance, poignancy, and generous curiosity with which Scorsese has always approached matters of faith and humanity, at least it dares to ask. 

Cape Fear is streaming on Starz

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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