Robert De Niro as Max Cady sitting on a wall with fireworks in the background in Cape Fear

In Cape Fear, Scorsese Drags Us Into the Muck

⚠️ This article contains spoilers for the 1991 film Cape Fear

💥 Content Warning: sexual assault, child abuse

I’ve found myself drawn to trash cinema in recent weeks (ask me about the shameful pleasures of the Underworld franchise). The deep unpleasantness of *waves arms* everything right now makes in-depth critical examination of more substantial films a challenge. Who has the emotional bandwidth to analyze the playful compositions of Agnes Varda when hundreds of thousands are suffering and dying at the hands of our own institutions? Vulgar and inconsequential films that ask nothing more from their audience than to luxuriate in a sea of raw, unexamined emotion are the ideal prescription for an overtaxed psyche. So when Martin Scorsese’s lurid 1991 exploitation remake Cape Fear appeared in my Netflix queue this month, like a handsome drifter in a lonely desert roadhouse — reader, I let it buy me a drink.

The original 1962 film is an enjoyable if prosaic thriller starring Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden, a virtuous and upstanding small-town lawyer terrorized by Max Cady, the menacing ex-con he helped send to prison. Cady is portrayed by a coolly sinister Robert Mitchum in a performance infused with all the intensity and foreboding eroticism that defined his career. An undercurrent of sexual hysteria runs through the film as the sensually constipated Bowden becomes increasingly threatened when Cady turns the focus of his animalistic sexuality towards his wife and young daughter. However the censorship of the film’s era prevents subtext from ever quite becoming text, and consequently it endures mostly as an oft-referenced classic and a popular example of Mitchum’s on-screen magnetism. 

Scorsese’s version leans into the source material’s untapped sleaze, “[molded to] his own themes and obsessions,” as Roger Ebert wrote. Screenwriter Wesley Strick slathers a thick layer of tormented Catholic morality and toxic Nietzschian philosophy onto James Webb’s original screenplay that transforms the simplistic “good-vs-evil” conflict of the 1962 version into a morally ambiguous meditation on primal instincts and original sin. As the glassy liquid surfaces of the film’s title sequence suggest, beneath the Bowden family’s tranquil façade lies secret turmoil. Yet lest the film be perceived as too cerebral, Scorsese keeps the audience tethered firmly to the muck with an infusion of Freudian sexual depravity and extreme exploitative violence, what critic Vincent Canby called “a new high in audience-friendly sadism.” Drenched in a gaudy neon palette with a Saul Bass title sequence and set to an adapted Bernard Hermann score, Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear delivers cheap, titillating thrills wrapped in lewd Hitchcokian aesthetics. 

The film takes strong inspiration from the psychosexual themes present throughout Hitchcock’s filmography. Teaming with director of photography Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man, Dune), Scorsese saturates the frame in lurid colors — the harsh neon glow of nights ill-spent in seedy dockside taverns. Emerald greens and crimson reds bring to mind the fevered intensity of Vertigo, as do the extensive use of mirrors which force morally corrupt characters to confront themselves. Bowden’s wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), first lays eyes on Robert De Niro’s Cady in a trancelike, sexually charged sequence set during a fireworks display, a favorite of Hitchcock’s copulation metaphors. 

Like Hitchcock, Scorsese’s sentiments have often leaned towards the exploitative, but those instincts are typically restrained enough to avoid ruffling any feathers within traditionalist film circles. According to longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker about the film, “Marty says, ‘I like to grab them by the back of the neck and say, ‘Look at this! and Look at that!’ And so he’s doing a lot more of that kind of stuff here, and he can get away with it more because it is a thriller.” Cape Fear was Scorsese’s first film after Goodfellas, for which he lost both the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for the third time. Rejected by the “serious” film establishment, Scorsese shifted gears with a genre picture uninhibited by the prudish sensibilities of prestige cinema. Cape Fear gleefully wallows in the exploitation tropes Scorsese gravitates to — elitist pearl-clutchers be damned — and is free to expose the tawdry subtext of the original film as outright text.

Instead of the morally immaculate family man portrayed by Peck in the original, in this version Bowden, as played by Nick Nolte, is presented as flawed and hypocritical. While serving as Cady’s defense lawyer in a brutal rape case Bowden intentionally withheld evidence that might have exonerated him, and thus Cady returns from a 14-year sentence seeking revenge for his lawyer’s betrayal. While in the original Bowden is an innocent and morally righteous man terrorized by an evil convict, here he is forced to reckon with the fallout of his previous moral failings. Similarly, the specter of a previous affair hangs over Bowden’s marriage, threatening to expose the emotional turbulence just beneath the family’s placid surface. As critic Terrence Rafferty wrote, “[Cady] appears to have sprung forth from the Bowdens’ dirty little souls.” 

While the sexual elements of the original were never overt, Scorsese leans hard into Freudian sexual signifiers, particularly through the use of a repeating oral motif. Our attention is regularly drawn to mouths, lips, teeth, and tongues. Cady’s are continuously engaged by an almost comically oversized cigar, while Bowden’s sexually blossoming daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) endlessly fidgets with a retainer. Two oral fixations that collide in the film’s most famous scene: a hypnotic, squirm-inducing 10-minute sequence where Cady lecherously grooms Danielle in an artificial enchanted forest. In a moment of almost unbearable discomfort, Cady slips a finger into Danielle’s mouth, which she tentatively accepts. The scene is notorious because it is so nauseatingly effective at eliciting an emotional response from the audience. The scene’s naturalism makes us keenly aware of our position as voyeurs and that we are seeing something we shouldn’t. And like voyeurs we are simultaneously titillated by the sexually charged nature of the scene and ashamed at our own depravity. This intensity of uncomfortable or even taboo emotion is where the exploitation filmmaker excels. But Cape Fear exploits us not exclusively through sexuality, but through violence as well.

The use of female suffering to extort an emotional response from the audience abounds in the film: a scene in which Cady rapes a female colleague (and potential sexual partner) of Bowden’s is made all the more disturbing when he leans down to tear a bite of flesh from her cheek. Later, the garotted body of the film’s only non-white character, a latinx maid, is exhibited as another victim of Cady’s sadism. This scene immediately leads to a moment of dark comedy when Bowden slips in a large pool of blood on the linoleum floor. If there was any doubt up to that point as to what kind of film Scorsese was making, Nick Nolte doing a flailing pratfall in a pool of Joe Don Baker’s blood is about as nuanced as a rake to the face.

By the third act the film fully devolves into sublime, preposterous camp. Cady, disfigured by burns reminiscent of De Niro’s turn as Frankenstein’s monster, stages a grotesque faux trial with God invoked to act as judge in a mockery of the rule of law and civilization that Bowden has depended on his whole life. De Niro’s performance is so extreme and the situation so ludicrous that Scorsese actually adds whip-around sound effects when Cady exuberantly switches his focus between “judge” and “witness.” It’s bombastic to the point of cartoonish, ultimately leading to Cady’s watery demise whilst hysterically speaking in tongues. And when it’s all over Bowden and his family, their airs of civilization violently stripped away, are left literally crawling in the mud, their basest primordial selves laid bare. And we, in our enjoyment of their suffering, are exposed along with them.

This gets at something Rafferty highlights in his review: that the religious and philosophical trappings of the film muddy the waters of its true intent, and therefore give the audience a respectable excuse for indulging in crude cinema. “These are ways of making ourselves feel smart while we enjoy dumb movies, of asserting our superiority to gut-level, cheap-thrills storytelling.” It’s for this reason perhaps that the film has never been fully embraced as the exploitation schlockfest that it is. It’s trying too hard to pass itself off as a kind of “elevated trash.” It may even be dangerous to position a film that encourages the audience to indulge in such vulgar spectacle as mainstream entertainment. We’re supposed to be ashamed of enjoying this film, our shame is proof of the deplorable nature of its worldview. But when approached without pretense, the dirty thrills of exploitation films like Cape Fear can be a welcome release from the world’s true horrors. A few hours spent crawling in the dirt can make you feel clean.

Further Reading