Scorsese: Cape Fear (1991)

One of the biggest differences between Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola is that Coppola could never bear to make a mere genre film after Apocalypse Now – everything had to be bigger, better and more auteurist than his masterpiece. That was clearly an impossible task, so most of Coppola’s filmography from the 80s until now has consisted of frustrated auteurist statements, films about frustrated auteurs, or revisionist reworkings of his own New Hollywood heyday. By contrast, Scorsese has kept fresh by peppering his grander and more auteurist statements with terrific genre exercises – and nowhere is that clearer than in his decision to follow Goodfellas with Cape Fear, a gripping thriller and the very best in his career.

Cape Fear is a remake of J. Lee Thompson’s film of the same name from 1962, and both films are adaptations of John D. MacDonald’s 1957 suspense novel The Executioners. Wesley Strick’s screenplay keeps most of the details of both the novel and original film, and revolves around Max Cady, a felon played by Robert De Niro, and his defence attorney Sam Bowden, played by Nick Nolte. When Cady is released after serving a fourteen-year sentence for rape and aggravated assault, he immediately tracks down Sam, who lives in the Georgia town of New Essex, and starts harassing him, along with his wife Leigh, played by Jessica Lange, and his daughter Danny, played by Juliette Lewis. We soon learn that Sam suppressed “evidence” during Cady’s trial – namely, that Cady’s victim was promiscuous – because he feared it would lead to jury to find in favour of his client. Certain that Cady had committed the rape, he buried the information, but Cady has found out about it during his time in prison, and wants revenge.

Although the original wasn’t directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s clear from the outset that this is Scorsese’s tribute to Hitchcock. The titles are by Saul Bass, the music is by Bernard Herrmann, and the film is full of the kinds of technical tricks that crop up time and again in Hitchcock’s dream sequences. More generally, by bringing Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, the stars of the original, back into the cast, Scorsese makes it clear that he is operating in classicist mode – up to a point. For while this might start as a somewhat stately genre tribute, it quickly accelerates into Scorsese’s most maximalist film, set against the manic fervor of July 4th in the South. Goodfellas was hyperactive enough, but Scorsese exceeds that energy here, and without the momentum of an ensemble cast to carry him along, instead investing his camera with a frenzied mobility he hasn’t rivalled before or since. This effectively exhausted him, ushering in a much more languorous decade in his body of work – from the slowness of The Age of Innocence and Kundun, to the statelier pacing of Casino and Bringing Out the Dead.

In fact, Scorsese wouldn’t return to this hyperactivity until Gangs of New York, by which stage critics interpreted it more as a frustrated televisual impulse, meaning that Cape Fear, along with Goodfellas, is a tipping-point in Scorsese’s work – and in his collaborations with De Niro, who is at the heart of the film’s maximalist intensity. From the moment we meet him exercising in a jail scene that directly quotes Taxi Driver, Cady is an outsized, overblown, maximalist cinematic presence. His first activity, after leaving jail, is going to a screening of Problem Child, which he enters halfway through, right when the film is quoting The Shining. Serious and inane cinema collapse into this campy citation, and into Cady’s own exaggerated enjoyment of the film, which is also what first alerts him to the Bowdens, even though they don’t know who he is yet, as he chortles maniacally at every joke and smokes like a chimney.

In Cady’s hands, the script feels excessively embodied, inextricable from the tattoos carved across De Niro’s most muscular film torso, leading a detective to observe: “I don’t know whether to look at him or read him.” Cady also embodies speech in an especially heightened way, turning every piece of dialogue into an emanation of his entire body at its most aggressive. We learn that he bit off the tongue of an inmate who informed on him for smoking, and he mirrors that by biting a hunk out of the cheek of Sam’s love interest – a literal silencing, and a visceral insistence on the supremacy of his speech, since he knows that this woman has spent enough time prosecuting assault charges to know what’s at stake for her if she comes forward. Whenever he speaks, waves of disruption ripple Scorsese’s mise-en-scenes, sending a force field across the film that makes it hard for Sam and his family to maintain any semblance of naturalism. No surprise, then, that Cady seduces Danny by joking about moving to California to teach a lesson in earthquake preparedness as his ideal career.

During Goodfellas, you started to sense a shift in De Niro, a new kind of blankness and malleability. This was the moment when he began to play his own screen image, rather than discrete characters, and that process is completed in Cape Fear, where De Niro emphatically plays De Niro for the first time. As a result, Cady collapses into the syntax of the film from the moment he appears. Leigh first senses Cady’s presence as the film negative inverts, and induces a dream state between sleeping and waking. Every time she seems to wake up, the camera fades to a bright colour, until a firework display truly wakes her, and draws her to the window, where she sees Cady sitting on the fence, lit by all of the colours she’s just dreamed.

In order to evoke Cady as a collapse between the content and form of the film, Scorsese intensifies the signature pivots and focus pulls of Goodfellas into his most hyperactive camera movements to date. These pivots dramatically compress space, insisting on the screen as a material surface, and producing an overwhelmingly widescreen experience even when you watch it on a television or computer. In an early scene, Scorsese finds the perfect objective correlative for this pivoting motion – a squash ball, which the camera follows maniacally into the corner of a court before it rebounds at a crazy angle. This sets the scene for a series of camera movements that pull into objects only to evoke an even more dangerous ricochet. Since the first act is almost entirely composed of canted angles, it feels as if these pivots could occur at any moment, meaning that this ever more threatening ricochet is always immanent.

In addition, Scorsese opts for dramatic and artificial contrasts between foreground and background that emphasise the materiality of the screen as a flat and expansive surface. You might say Scorsese is more interested in the two-dimensional space between different points on the screen, rather than the three-dimensional space between different parts of his mise-en-scene, which is flatter and more plastic than ever before. This is especially clear in a scene that would be perfect for a deep focus approach – the sequence when the Bowden family first glimpse Cady, on the other side of a cavernous July 4th parade. Yet any depth is immediately absorbed into the tableaux vivants of the parade itself, which recreate famous paintings and photographs – Washington Crossing the Delaware, Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima – that simultaneously flatten space, making it hard for spatial depth to ramify in any manner.

Just as Scorsese artificially dissociates the foreground and background, he dissociates sound and vision. During this same parade scene, there’s a palpably artificial disconnect between dialogue and ambient sound, with the family’s voices standing out from the crowd even when we’re too far away to realistically hear them. At the same time, this is when Herrmann’s main motif first crescendos – a series of trumpet stabs that are so aggressive that they effectively rupture the diegesis, rather than accompanying it. This is a soundtrack that pointedly separates the sonic and visual planes of the film instead of unifying them, evoking an older era of cinema when sound and vision were more conspicuously captured on separate devices.

All of these stylistic features combine to erode any sense of depth, and erase any distinction between inside and outside, meaning that nothing in the film can be extricated from Cady’s plan. There’s constant citation of classical Hollywood, but these vertiginous erasures of space finally make Cape Fear feel like Scorsese’s tribute to Vertigo, especially during the first act, which becomes quite nauseating by the time the narrative gets underway. Even that narrative emerges out of this collapse of space, which makes the Bowden household immediately permeable to Cady’s plans. All the spaces in the house quickly become porous, prompting a second act set piece in which a detective stretches a fishing wire across every door and window, and links it to a teddy bear in the middle of the lounge room, so that Sam can register Cady’s presence at any one moment. Yet even in the first act Sam inchoately senses that Cady is making his way in and out of his house, though he has no idea how he’s managing to do so.  

Cady thus becomes a figure for a schism in the Bowden family, indistinguishable from our dawning sense that something is not quite right in this marriage and household. Both Lange and Lewis have a kind of flirtatious mockery that disempowers Sam from the outset – especially Lange, as Leigh, who smiles most when she’s mocking her husband, making her regular smile difficult to read. Cady emerges as a projection of this family’s fears, both their collective fears and their individual fears, meaning that, for all his vividly defined musculature, he’s curiously unformed during the first act of the film, at least in his encounters with the Bowdens. Despite being warned about him, Leigh and Danny somehow have no idea what he looks like when they meet him – he’s nothing but projections, as faceless as a classic slasher.

Like a slasher, Cady embodies a crisis in the family, but at some level the family needs him to resolve it too. At times, he presents as a particularly intense marriage coach, assuring Sam “I’m going to show you the meaning of commitment.” While he beats up Sam’s love interest, he does it just as they’re poised on the brink of a full-blown affair – and we learn this around the same time that we discover that the Bowdens only moved to New Essex in the first place so that Sam and Leigh could start again after a string of affairs in their old town almost destroyed their marriage. In that sense, Cady is a heightened version of Sam himself, an embodiment of the monstrosity and promiscuity that the Bowdens need to collectively expel.

In other words, Cady mediates the Bowden household – and enters the house as mercurially as media. He’s especially obsessed with the threshold of their property, whether he’s sitting on the fence or idling in his car outside, while Scorsese’s pans grow especially hyperactive whenever Sam tries to secure the house against him. The focus pulls are never as intense as when Sam is battening down the hatches – locking doors, closing blinds, peering out windows – and yet this only reiterates Cady as an emblem of media convergence who becomes coterminous with the film’s own obsessive citation. We see this, for example, in the way Leigh tries to convince Sam of the futility of hiring a detective to protect their household boundaries – by listing a series of filmic detectives whom she intuits Cady must have already converged.

This convergence climaxes around Danny’s room, which seems to gather all the film’s disparate citations like an unruly antenna. Scorsese collapses his pivots into the convergent motion of first stepping inside Danny’s room, starting with a sharp focus pull from the back of her door, as it closes onto a stylised photograph of James Dean, and down to her television, where she’s watching Mondo Cane. Cady emerges as if organically from this convergence by phoning Danny on her personal line, introducing himself as her new drama teacher, and playing Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman” as she watches a slasher film. During this vertiginous collapse of audiovisual stimuli, Cady is hanging upside down in his own room, and the camera twists around to match his angle, suspending him eerily in space until he seems to be remaking space itself in his own image – the space of the Bowden family in particular.

This marks the point at which Cady completely absorbs Sam’s role in mediating the women in his family, as we shift to the quietest space so far in the film, but also the most plastic and artificial – a model of a witches’ house on the stage of Danny’s school theatre, which appears to be situated at the deepest point in the building. As Danny arrives alone, expecting a class, Cady poses as her teacher for only the briefest beat, before segueing into the sensitive parenthood that Sam and Leigh can’t provide. In response, Danny regresses, becomes a credulous child, transforms into the Daddy’s Little Girl that Sam wants and needs, until she can’t deliver anything except the most inane citations: “Shit happens, as the T-shirt says.” At the very moment that Cady occupies Sam’s position as father better than Sam ever can himself, he kisses Danny – and she kisses him back, admitting him into the Bowen household.

Conversely, when Sam learns what went down, the only way he knows how to respond is a blunt demand: “No. You hear? No.” Cady can communicate, but Sam can only prohibit. Whereas Danny voluntarily accepted Cady’s finger in her mouth, and then leaned in to kiss him, Sam forces his hand over her mouth, pushing her violently back onto her bed, when she won’t admit to whether or not she made physical contact with Cady. In the very process of seducing Danny, Cady slips into the role of protective father, and at the very moment of trying to uncover what happened and protect Danny, Sam slips into the role of the physical abuser.

This reversal and inversion of Sam’s father-function prompts an immediate reversal in the spatial parameters of his entire world. Not only does he fail to get a restraining order on Cady, but Cady gets one on him, meaning that the only way to thwart Cady is to invite him into the Bowden house. To do that, Sam pretends to go away for the weekend, and leave Leigh and Danny alone, before sneaking back into his own garage, in the back seat of the car, and so adopting the role of the intruder he is trying to expel. From this point on, the conflict becomes a kind of literal brinksmanship – a contest for which man can occupy the brink of the house, and the threshold of the suburban spatial scheme, most precisely, acutely and precariously.

Even by this stage, however, Cady is far ahead of Sam, since he’s already converged any conceivable security system with the process of breaching it, pre-empting any mechanism for alerting the Bowdens to the most porous points of their property by embodying that porosity more acutely than any technology could. Cady is the biggest threat to the family, and yet the very existence of the family now seems to depend on Cady, who becomes a precondition for their survival even as his aggression grows more deranged. As a result, Cady collapses entirely into Scorsese’s camera, drifting up to Danny’s window, beyond the trajectory of any mere human, as she inchoately senses his presence while her teddy bear jerks in the lounge room.    

We see this collapse even more clearly in the next scene, when Cady appears to be projecting the film directly onto Sam’s eyeball. Like Leigh in the first act, and Danny a few minutes before, Sam wakes suddenly, intuiting that Cady is somehow near. At first, he can only see a negative reversal of the image, with Cady standing at the foot of his bed, and he sees the same thing after rubbing his eyes. When he rubs his eyes a third time, Cady is still there, but the colour and lighting has returned to normal, before Cady vanishes with the fourth rub. He seems aware that Cady was never there, but he can’t quite dismiss this as a dream either, reflecting haltingly to Leigh that “I just had the weirdest feeling he was already in the house.”

This moment is the kernel of Cady’s project, and the first time we really start to glimpse what his endgame entails. For long stretches of the film, he has the chance to murder, rape or torture every member of the Bowden family, but he never takes the opportunity. Instead, we realise, he wants to displace the family at a more primal level – he wants Sam to wake up with precisely this sense that he is already there and that he has always already been there. He wants to convince Sam retrospectively that he never left him – that’s he’s taken up space in his house, head and family during his last fourteen years of prison. Sam wants to expel Cady, but Cady responds by showing him that he’s already in the house. Leigh realises this in the closing act, when she tries to parry Cady’s last assault on the family by telling him that she has often thought about him during his time in prison, and that she has always been with him in spirit, despite having never heard of him before he commenced his reign of terror on her.

More generally, Cady wants to situate himself in relation to Sam as Southern Christianity – he wants to place himself in the position of Southern Christianity with respect to the Southern family as an insitution. This was Scorsese’s only film set in the South, but there’s a clear resonance with his own Catholic angst here, and especially his fixation on the thresholds where Catholicism becomes a force for division rather than cohesion. As many critics have noted, Cady is reminiscent of the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – a “Misfit” who kills off an entire family while espousing Nietzschean amorality. Cady is also an ubermensch inflected through Southern Gothic – “My mission during that time was to become more than human” – reminding Sam that he can “out-philosophise” anyone as he single-handedly disposes of a trio of petty criminals that Sam hires to beat him into retreat.

Once again, this makes Cady feel like the precondition for the Bowdens’ existence, and for the existence of the Southern white family full stop. In one of the eeriest moments, he turns away from beating up the criminals, and walks over to a trash bin that we know Sam is hiding behind. Cady doesn’t know this for sure (he hears Sam kick over a bottle) and he wonders aloud if Sam is there, to Sam, a paradoxical gesture that suggests this very act of speaking to Sam guarantees Sam’s existence. Sam realises here that he doesn’t completely exist without Cady, who starts to morph into everything that the Southern white family has to repress as its conditions of possibility. In that sense, Cady stands for a blackness that we barely see in the film, except as the main blind spot in the Bowden mansion and his most porous point of entrance –the quarters of the family’s black maid, who Cady kills before disguising himself in her clothes, confident that the Bowdens won’t give him/her a second glance until it’s too late.

As the film reaches its third act, Cady presents himself as a Southern God, and the Southern God as the Old Testament God, indifferent to the new dispensation of the North. This is the divine at his most aleatory, punitive and unsettling – Cady directs Sam to the Book of Job to understand (or fail to understand) his purpose – and yet it is the condition of mediation for the Bowdens as well. While Sam’s detective may be killed by Cady, he does give one terrific piece of advice – to treat the South, and its driving mythologies, as part of a “tradition of savouring fear – fear of the Indian, fear of the slave, fear of the Union.” In order to escape Cady, the Bowdens have to escape the South, and so they take the third act to Cape Fear, the pinnacle of the South in the film’s figurative lexicon, and the place where the South ends in Scorsese’s imagination – a swampy estuary that gives way to a roaring oceanic maelstrom.

As a result, Cady’s project also reaches its apotheosis in Cape Fear, where he reveals that he doesn’t merely want to replace the family, or annihilate the family, but actually converge himself with the family. This project unfolds on a houseboat that plays to the strengths of both parties. It provides Sam with an opportunity to abstract, shrink and untether his actual house so that he can take it to the very precipice of the South, whereas it provides Cady with roughly the same dimensions as his prison cell, meaning he can converge his prison life with the Bowden’s family life as never before. To make it onto the houseboat, Cady now has to embody the threshold of the Bowden’s family space as never before too, and he does so in his most acrobatic feat so far – clinging to the bottom of their Range Rover all the way from New Essex to Cape Fear. When he detaches himself from the bottom, the only person who sees him is a black woman, and they share an odd glance – not exactly as if she’s not there, but as if she’s prescient that she’s not there to whatever white family she might report it to.

From this point, the action shifts to the houseboat, and the marshy landscape around it, which collapses any residual distinction between inside and outside, or land and water, to a concatenation of exotic spatial thresholds ripe for Cady to harness into his own perverse vocabulary. All the thresholds of the film quiver and liquefy around the surface of the water, as Scorsese takes the time to show the Bowden’s anchor breaking the top of the swamp and plunging into the depths below, which are already as luridly blue as the ocean where we eventually end up. Cady rises from the water, is propelled back into the water, and cuts the anchor so the boat is set adrift in the water, while using the anchor rope to clamber back up to the boat for a second time. The film hangs in the balance here, on the unbearable brink of Cady’s convergent ambitions, with Sam poised somewhere between life and death, and Leigh and Danny on a queasy cusp between rejecting Cady and embracing him despite themselves.

Eventually, Sam gets back on board, and Leigh and Danny fight back, but the battle isn’t over, since Cady now arrives at his last stage in converging himself with the family – totally dissolving any coherent spatiality so that there’s no way of distinguishing his space from Sam’s. By this point, he’s also totally converged himself with Scorsese’s camera, appealing directly to the director as he puts Sam on trial, so it’s impossible to distinguish between objective and POV shots any more, as every perspective collapses into Cady’s. When we periodically cut beneath the boat to see the underwater currents and topography, we’re still somehow in Cady’s purview, as we are when these submarine phenomena splinter space on the boat as well. It all culminates with a whirlpool that pulls the camera into its wake as much as the boat, spinning us round and round until there’s no stable spatial field any more. Scorsese has to fall back upon a palpable artificiality and irreality to anchor his shots, inviting us to fully embody Cady with all the gorgeous plasticity of a high-end amusement park ride.

Since Scorsese is such a big Powell and Pressburger fan, I wondered if this whirlpool was based on the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, the final set piece in I Know Where I’m Going!, since Sam is so desperate to prove that he knows where he’s going here. A few years after Cape Fear was released, Scorsese appeared in a documentary called I Know Where I’m Going Revisited, in which he reflected that “I reached the point of thinking there were no more masterpieces to discover until I saw I Know Where I’m Going!,” collapsing his exclamation at the film’s brilliance into the exclamation point of its own title. It’s quite possible that he watched it at the same time he was working on Cape Fear, since this final whirlpool is just as exclamatory, functioning as a kind of syntactic full stop that nothing in the following minutes can resolve.

As a result, the film becomes entirely abstract as the family flees the ship, whittled down to reverse footage of water cascading, as we reach the cusp of Cape Fear, the cusp of the South, and the cusp of Cady’s project. Yet that was always where Cady was going to be most potent, and so we end with a surreal standoff – Sam washed up on shore, Cady chained to the centre of the houseboat (all that remains of the houseboat) as it sinks. Despite that fact, Cady is in charge here, reminding Sam that he will always occupy his house even more thoroughly than he can himself. After mocking Sam about the restraining order, he speaks in tongues as the current carries him back out into the river-ocean, and then finally maintains eye contact with Sam until the sinking house carries him under the water. In combination, those three gestures leave a sobering message – that he will always be looking back from Sam’s domestic thresholds, even or especially in death, with an antisociality that defies linguistic expression.

This is a profoundly schismatic ending, evoking something atavistic and asocial in the white middle-class project. Cady might have died, but he dies mocking Sam with the thresholds that can never re-emerge without him occupying them once again, as inexorably as he holds onto this last gaze. Even if his body is never recovered, his incoherent babble will always recur when Nolte tries to cohere himself as man of the house, or establish cohesive domestic boundaries. And so the film never leaves this final tableau, instead ending with two restorative gestures that are painfully limp and overtly token. First, Sam washes the blood off his hands, but jumps when he mistakes them for Cady’s. Then he limps over to the family and cradles them in a primal, prehistoric, prelinguistic mudscape, his apelike postures reducing middle-class whites to the black sterotypes that established Southern whiteness to start with.

Finally, we close with a voiceover from Danny, blandly intoning that “we never speak about what happened,” but it’s more like the Bowdens literally can’t speak about what happened, since the Cady-threshold has regressed them to an atavistic space outside the language of Southern gentilty. As a result, Danny’s monologue is pure formality, right down to the way she rotely says “The End” at the end of it all, as the camera focuses in on her eye, the image freezes, shifts to the negative, and then goes red as the trumpet stabs recur. Every gaze in the film, and every gaze commanded by the film, collapses into a filmic formalism that concedes Cady’s supremacy. We realise that the film can never resolve Sam’s boundaries because Cady has always already claimed them. And this is the peak of Cady’s revenge – ensuring that Sam, and Scorsese, can never resolve the film’s boundaries, or resolve any semblance of a cohesive mise-en-scene, without immediately bringing him right back to life.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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