Cape Fear

Back when this movie came out in 1991, I was rehearsing a play with an actor who was a fellow cineaste. I came to rehearsal one afternoon and mentioned that I had just gone to see Cape Fear, and my cineaste friend gave me a look like I had just spent the day at a Three Stooges festival. He felt like Scorsese had not just betrayed his gift, but had made a movie that was boring, silly and unimportant.

Since then, I’ve seen Cape Fear at least ten times and never fail to get more out of it.

Last night I went to see the new remake of Slither. I liked it okay, but then I came home and put on Cape Fear. It’s silly and counterproductive to compare the work of a master operating at the height of his powers with the biggest budget of his career to the first film by a guy who wants nothing more than to gross us out, but Scorsese’s direction in Cape Fear, like Kubrick’s in The Shining, serves as a reminder of how gripping and transcendent genre filmmaking can be. There is barely an ordinary shot in the entire movie. Scorsese charges common shots with jolting electricity. A door closes, a car drives away, a man walks into a room, Scorsese finds ways to make all of these rote pieces of expository action crackle with intensity.

Both Cape Fear and The Shining feature, shall we say, larger-than-life lead performances. Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is so peculiar and over-the-top, I went back and forth on it for years before accepting it as an integral part of the film. But De Niro in Cape Fear got to me immediately. His Max Cady is a palpable entity, monstrous yet still human. On the surface, with his loud, ugly clothes and ridiculous cigar, he’s nothing but an inbred yahoo. But when you get to know him, he’s got all kinds of hidden resources and powers.

That’s important, because one of the themes of Cape Fear is: who is “better,” the successful family man with the suburban mansion, or the lowlife scumbag rapist/murderer? That sounds like a stupid question, and yet Cape Fear brings it vividly to life. As De Niro slowly but surely gets the better of Nick Nolte and his family, we begin to feel our self-righteousness slip away until we don’t know what’s right or wrong any more, we just know that we don’t want to be raped and murdered.

After De Niro attempts to seduce Juliette Lewis, she defends him to Nolte by saying that he was just “trying to make a connection with me.” That sends Nolte into a rage, shouting “There will never be any connection between you and Max Cady!” Nolte (and the rest of affluent society) has spent his whole life building up walls of protection between himself and people whom he considers “lesser” than him.

Max Cady has spent a lot of time improving himself in prison. He’s lost weight, built up his muscles, learned to read and has ultimately gotten a law degree. So we could say that Sam Bowden “saved” him, gave him the motive to improve his condition. But Max wouldn’t have been in prison in the first place if Bowden hadn’t “done the right thing” by putting him there. And what is he doing, now that his condition is improved? He’s using all his new-found powers to destroy Sam Bowden.

It’s not about how Max brings Sam “down to his level,” it’s about how Sam was always on Max’s level, but had convinced himself otherwise. That’s why the film begins with hair-splitting legal niceties, but ends with two guys hitting each other with rocks on a muddy shore.

I don’t know why this theme fascinates me, but it does. The idea of the “good man” locked in combat with the “bad man” until we don’t know which is which any more. Or the “bad man” wearing the “good man” down until the “good man” isn’t “good” any more. Mamet’s Oleanna has a similar effect: a student calls her teacher a monster, seemingly out of nowhere, and he gets angrier and angrier until he finally becomes the thing he keeps insisting he is not.

Max Cady says at one point that he’s going to force Sam Bowden to make a commitment, just as Sam forced Max to make a commitment by putting him in prison. This line stuck out at me today, because Max isn’t saying that he’s going to kill Sam. He’s saying that Sam is going to kill him. Max is telling Sam that this isn’t going to end until Sam has lost his family and is put in prison. Why will Sam be put in prison? For killing Max Cady. Sam will kill Max because Max will rape and murder Sam’s wife and daughter. In his way, Max is offering himself up as a sacrifice. He’s made it his life’s work to put Sam Bowden in prison, and he’s got every single step in the plan worked out from the very beginning.

One of the reasons the theme of this movie appeals to me is that a friend of mine is currently involved in a lawsuit with a man who, for reasons best understood by himself, has decided to make my friend’s life a living hell. He’s got money and resources and a very large axe to grind, and he’s not going to stop until my friend’s life is ruined. In normal life, I’m sure this man goes about his life, charms his friends and takes care of whatever family he may have, and would never merit more than a passing glance from a passer-by. It’s only when one examines him closely, or is the victim of one of his electronic missives, that one realizes what a dangerous, unstable psychopath the man is. Just as Max Cady is an ordinary, even faintly ridiculous figure on the outside but seethes and roils with hatred, jealousy and rage on the inside, this man uses his intelligence and resources to do nothing but destroy and spread hatred in the world. Like Max Cady, he knows how the law works and how to use it to his advantage. He has an incredible talent for getting under people’s skin and drawing out parts of themselves they would prefer never see.

I guess one could say that lawsuits, like the phone company and the internet, are there to bring people together.
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7 Responses to “Cape Fear”
  1. eronanke says:

    After De Niro attempts to seduce Juliette Lewis, she defends him to Nolte by saying that he was just “trying to make a connection with me.”

    Hmmm… I’ve had guys tell me that, too. It ends badly.
    Meanwhile, thanks to you, my Netflix queue is way way way too long.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I love this analysis, and I wish I had something cogent to add to it.

    Unfortunately, what struck in my head was… “Slither? A remake?” A hasty search didn’t reveal anything but reaffirmation of the inspirations: Night of the Creeps, Shivers, etc. (Including the Jaws reference near the end that seems to end up in a lot of these.)

    I tried bringing Josh and James together to see that they were really like brothers — despite the lawsuit — with my offered icon, but that doesn’t seem to have worked.

    God, Oleanna. So unpleasant.

    • Todd says:

      “Slither? A remake?”

      For some reason, I thought there was a 70s picture called Slither. There is, but it’s a crime comedy starring James Caan. I stand corrected and my deepest apologies.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Mamet’s Oleanna has a similar effect: a student calls her teacher a monster, seemingly out of nowhere, and he gets angrier and angrier until he finally becomes the thing he keeps insisting he is not.

    Yeesh. I can’t stand Oleanna. I’ve seen the film and I’ve seen a stage production of it. Both times I’ve wanted to strangle the actress playing the student.