I Fought the Law
Julien Allen on Cape Fear

The hushed throng of college students, well-to-do couples, and intense-looking, turtle-necked cinéphiles sat transfixed with anticipation on a Parisian fall evening in 1965. Gathered in a smoke-filled screening of Orson Welles’ The Trial at the Reflet Médicis —the temple of art et d’essai tucked away on the rue Champollion, a stone's throw from the Panthéon—they watched as Anthony Perkins (as K.) woke to find two strange men in his apartment. All of a sudden, the atmosphere of reverence in the theater was abruptly punctured by booming (and frankly unsociable) peals of inappropriate laughter from the front row. A minor breach of the peace threatened to ensue, until someone noticed that the selfish noise pollutant was none other than Welles himself, who had, somewhat improbably, snuck into the screening incognito. Thrilled, the punters eased back into their seats, and did their best to “enjoy” the rest of this bleak masterpiece, which their idol—who had created it and was now watching it with them—found so funny. Amongst Welles’s many justifications for laughing? It was schadenfreude. According to Welles, Josef K. was as guilty as sin.

The above anecdote, told against himself by Welles to the BBC's Alan Yentob in 1981, recalls the peculiar antics of Robert De Niro’s Max Cady, not far into Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. Cady is sabotaging a family screening of the feeble John Ritter vehicle Problem Child by screaming with laughter, despite the film’s transparent un-funniness. The smoke, here, is emanating from Cady’s cigar. It’s the opening salvo of a campaign of terror which this tattooed psychopath will wage on Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte); his wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange); and their 15-year-old daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis), and the deliberate cinematic joke could hardly be more appropriate in a film that continually alternates the playful and the deadly serious. De Niro could, as he walks into the frame, just as well be walking in front of us at our own screening.

Notwithstanding the mainstream stylings of The Color of Money, Scorsese's first outright foray into studio-style event-movie filmmaking was “earned” by the success of Goodfellas and came about via a transaction with Steven Spielberg. In 1988, Scorsese had custody of Schindler's List and Spielberg of Cape Fear, and they decided to swap (imagining the results of those projects in each of the other’s hands is more than a little intriguing). Where J. Lee Thompson’s nasty, original 1962 potboiler (starring Gregory Peck as Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Cady) essentially pitted Atticus Finch against Harry Powell, Scorsese’s approach to updating it was branded by two very Hitchcockian objectives. The first was to replace the black and white characterizations of the original with lashings of dark gray, injecting a heavy dose of ambiguity into the script, thereby not simply dramatizing conflict on the screen, but defraying the conflict onto the audience. His second goal was, put simply, enthusiastic virtuosity. With the help of some all-stars—regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, titles designer Saul Bass, celebrated British cinematographer Freddie Francis, and mythical composer Bernard Herrmann (whose original score for the 1963 film is updated by Elmer Bernstein)—he set out to pay lavish, decadent homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, even going as far as to hire Vertigo’s production designer, Henry Bumstead. The ensuing blaze of technique—fast zooms, vivid color dissolves, whip pans, shock sound effects, high diagonal angles, filters, upside-down camera shots, sequences in negative format—gives to Cape Fear a retro, carnivalesque quality that feels more like the Amicus/Hammer horror films Freddie Francis himself once directed (Paranoiac, Torture Garden) than a contemporary American thriller.

The irony is that these aesthetic choices are both celebratory and, arguably, defensive. Scorsese had certainly seen enough potential to exploit his own preoccupations in Cape Fear, but it dragged him out of his comfort zone so much that it practically represented for him an experimental film—the “rules” of the studio picture proscribing the looser narrative sprawl of a Mean Streets or a Goodfellas. Like a lot of Hitchcock and De Palma, Cape Fear lies squarely across the divide between horror and thriller, an ill-defined boundary best summed up by the French subgenre film d'angoisse, attributed to movies such as Eyes Without a Face and Diabolique, meaning “film of anguish,” as opposed to film d'épouvante (ghost story) or film fantastique (supernatural horror). But it was still essentially an attempt at a mainstream crowd-pleaser. The more Scorsese embraced this challenge, the more he seemed compelled to deploy demonstrative trickery to indicate how aware he was—and how aware the audience should be—of his shift into this more traditional space and of his desire to improve on it, by reference to the past.

Cape Fear emulates exploitation cinema in its overlap between the obvious indulgence of the director and the pleasure the audience takes in recognizing and celebrating that indulgence, in the same way that hardcore “genre” fans of Enzo Castellari westerns or the recent The Raid 2: Berandal will unpack memorable “kills” by specific reference to the techniques deployed to achieve them. There’s no better homage to Old Masters than letting viewers fully appreciate how they went about their craft. The playful affection Scorsese shows for the language of genre cinema is such that one is even entitled to wonder at times if he isn’t flirting with parody. For example, he uses laughably exaggerated shock smash cuts, and in one case presents a simple dialogue scene, between Nolte and Lange, with ridiculously extreme split screen focus (De Palma in full Raising Cain mode would struggle to top it).

That said, it is certainly not forbidden to take Cape Fear seriously. If what emerges from the fireworks display of artistry is eventually something more profound and disturbing it is partly due to the hostility Scorsese developed in the script through the course of heavy rewrites with screenwriter Wesley Strick. The levels of unpleasantness on display—particularly in the various interactions between Cady and the female Bowdens—betray a sadistic undercurrent that characterizes much of Scorsese’s work and disavows, or at worst conflicts with, any suggestion of pastiche or genre exercise. Thierry Jousse’s 1992 review of Cape Fear in Cahiers du cinéma attacked the film, arguing that while Hitchcock’s dictatorial manipulation of his audience was a highly sophisticated fulfilment of his contract with them—a contract stipulating that the audience comes to the film expecting a certain level of peril and suspense, but a neat resolution—Scorsese had no such contract, but was instead casting himself as Cady and the audience as Bowden: dealing purely and simply in unilateral intimidation. (As if to underline this take, Cady walks straight into the camera/audience at the end of his first scene). Jousse added for good measure that if the audience is Bowden, Scorsese clearly doesn’t think much of his audience.

One might prefer to see in the moral errancy of Bowden's worldview and by consequence, his predicament, something that grounds Cape Fear very firmly within Scorsese's own thematic investigation into the American male. Other critics have looked at the psychopath Cady (a role De Niro lobbied hard for) as an extension of Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin, but this rather misses the point. It is Nolte's Bowden who is the “Scorsese male” here (Cape Fear's own Henry Hill, or Jordan Belfort). Cady, the bible-spouting monster, is the “turn” (the performance which pulls focus from the lead); magnetic perhaps, but a single-note tormentor who holds up a mirror to the hero—the type of character habitually played in Scorsese films by Joe Pesci.

Bowden, by contrast, is the film’s grimly irregular heartbeat. His downfall is inexorable and largely self-inflicted. Within five minutes, Nolte is shown contemplating cheating on his wife with a young colleague (Illeana Douglas). Within half an hour, he admits to having buried a report on the victim’s promiscuity that might have exonerated Cady fifteen years ago, when Bowden defended him against charges of rape and aggravated sexual battery (the discovery of this subterfuge is the source of Cady’s bid for revenge). Within an hour, Bowden has vainly offered Cady a bribe. And by the ninety minute mark he has hired three thugs to “do a hospital job” on him. It is important to recognize that as an attorney, the decisions Bowden is making are not clumsy or morally dubious—they are wholly reprehensible. Like a doctor who withholds care from a patient because he doesn’t like him, Bowden, by taking the law into his own hands and denying Cady the best defense available, abuses his power, betrays fundamental constitutional principles (the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, no less), and hands the moral high ground to a rapist, who in retaliation will appoint himself as Bowden’s judge and executioner. Cady, indeed, uses their very first conversation to cast aspersions on Bowden’s character, having spotted him flirting. “Free as a bird, Counsellor, seems you can go everywhere you want with whoever,” he mocks, and will spend the rest of the film essaying the role of the preaching innocent while Bowden gradually espouses the role of the criminal. Of course Bowden is manipulated throughout, but his tragedy stems from his own attitude to power: as a pillar of society, he takes it for granted, then repeatedly botches his attempts to exercise it. And—like Jake La Motta and Jordan Belfort—he is doomed by his inability to recognize the damage his own corruption is doing to his prospects, not to mention, potentially, his loved ones.

Ramping up the ambiguity further, Bowden’s family life also shows signs of being substantially amiss. Strick and Lange have a lot of fun with Leigh Bowden, who casually mentions incest, necrophilia, and bestiality whilst disrobing, as an immediate prelude to her and Bowden having sex. She is erotically drawn to the idea of Cady from the outset (though disappointed when she finally meets him) and exhibits signs of jealousy toward her own daughter’s nascent sexuality and eventual relationship with Cady, after he visits Danielle at school, emotionally seduces her, and buys her a copy of Henry Miller’s Sexus. Scorsese once cheerfully said of the Bowden family in the original 1962 version—so unspoiled, so white bread—that he would have preferred that they had all been killed. His Bowdens are joyously unrecognizable from their 1962 incarnations: their sexuality makes them human, but the human frailty they exhibit makes them very easy prey for Cady.

Kafkaesque in the extreme, the plot of Cape Fear hinges on questions of murky legality. Cady uses his prison time to bone up on the law, so he is able to stay on the right side of it by not trespassing or leaving any evidence of misfeasance; questions of “force majeure” and “excessive force” are examined in the context of Cady breaking and entering the Bowden home (so that premeditated murder is disguised as “justifiable homicide”*); and the film exposes the inability of the legal system to deal adequately with harassment of this kind. As in The Trial, the law in Cape Fear perfectly symbolizes— and reflects—humanity’s natural, unavoidable corruption. Scorsese’s masterstroke in the casting of Peck and Mitchum in cameos as the protagonists’ respective attorneys is in making them “swap sides” from their roles in the original. Mitchum (Cady in the original) advises Bowden; Peck (Bowden in the original) represents Cady. More than just a clever “shout-out,” this actually underscores the lack of any tangible moral dividing line between the two positions. Mitchum, the “good” attorney, is in fact deplorable—he knows “so many ways on the books to lean on an undesirable”—and Peck, grandstanding appallingly in front of the judge in De Niro’s defense and achieving a restraining order against Nolte (!)—is merely showing himself to be an exceptional (and indeed highly professional) attorney. Even indulging in cinematic in-jokes, Cape Fear the morality play manages to score its strongest satirical points.

There are wonderful Scorsese touches. He shows characters whose fates are already sealed enjoying themselves: the sequence in which De Niro seduces Illeana Douglas before brutally attacking her is a standout of improvisation by both actors and is another of those long, slow dialogue sequences that interrupt otherwise frantic direction (cf: Matthew McConaughey’s lunch scene in The Wolf of Wall Street). But ultimately the power of Cape Fear as a film d’angoisse resides in the more classical technique of stripping away the layers of societal comfort that a middle-class audience would take for granted. We enjoy the show Scorsese is putting on for us, but we assume, understandably, that Nolte’s character will find a way to win the day. He is a powerful attorney with the formidable Fred Thompson as his partner and ally, and he hires Mitchum and private detective Joe Don Baker to provide support for his position: how can he fail with all the resources at his disposal? But then he alienates Mitchum, who spits sarcastically, “Well pardon me all over the place,” as Nolte declares his disgust at an unethical suggestion. And then Joe Don Baker—cuddly, confident, comforting—starts to exhibit signs of stress (ramping up his consumption of whiskies with Pepto-Bismol chasers) as we gradually realize that De Niro's avenging angel is outwitting them every step of the way. These colleagues and helpers provide the initial comfort, but as they become progressively concerned, frightened, and powerless (then dead) Nolte has nowhere else to turn. He ought to be smart and powerful enough to know what to do, but he isn’t. For Scorsese’s American male, that’s more terrifying than anything.

One might be disappointed that the climax of the film is so tonally fumbled. Scorsese talked often when plugging Cape Fear about his need to resort to conventional thriller techniques, and having risen above the studio clichés for much of the film's duration, it is almost as if he and Strick felt duty-bound to climax with one of the biggest of them all: the elemental action set-piece wherein the already sufficiently implacable villain refuses to stay dead. Mitigated only by Lange’s dogged performance, the final sequence alternates genuine unpleasantness with blandly familiar action and inept special effects. There is a strong sense that even with everything that has gone before, Scorsese is finally overreaching, including De Niro speaking in tongues and symbolism so heavy (the blood on Nolte’s hands!) it should have gone down with the boat. Nevertheless, Cape Fear leaves us with a happy ending that is—satisfyingly—anything but. Herein lies the upside of delivering a protagonist as “guilty as sin.” Considering what survival has in store for Sam Bowden, he might have willingly accepted Josef K.’s fate of dying from the twist of a knife, on his knees, like a dog.

* In fact, North Carolina (where the film is set) only enshrined the “no duty to retreat” doctrine into law in 2011, a full twenty years after Cape Fear was made, so the film is either prescient or is taking slight liberties with the law, here. Cady would have needed an in-depth understanding of criminal case law so it is worth noting that Cady's cell at the beginning of the film—you need to pause to catch the relevant frame —contains alongside the St James Bible and plenty of Nietzsche, five different volumes of penal law reports, none of them contiguous, either in date or volume number.