Cape Fear: American justice, female sexuality, and Hitchcock’s legacy

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30 years later and Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the 1962 psychological thriller Cape Fear is a revelation. Bursting with the raw energy of the triad of Robert De Niro, Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, it’s a miraculous bridge between the Hitchcockian thrillers of the 50s and 60s, and the psychological thrillers of the 90s. 

The premise presents an undercurrent to the film, and speaks to the wider climate of cinematic portrayals of female sexuality, most abundantly in teen slasher films, where it is symbolically punished.

Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his family are stalked and increasingly harassed by the newly released, and newly learned, convict Max Cady (Robert De Niro), whom Bowden defended 14 years prior in a rape case, unsuccessfully. The lawyer’s burying of evidence of the rape survivor’s sexual history for fear it would clear his client’s name gives an important impetus to the ensuing cat-and-mouse plot. The premise presents an uneasy undercurrent to the film, and speaks to the wider climate of cinematic portrayals of female sexuality, most abundantly in teen slasher films, where it is symbolically punished. Cape Fear is about justice, the failings of the American system, and its hypocritical presentation of doing the work of God: “Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

Female sexuality threatens to reveal a rotten core of American justice and therefore, its values.

The character of Cady, spouting Bible verses, and sporting an infamous back tattoo (parodied on The Simpsons) of the Scales of Justice in the form of the crucifix, lampoons this institution into which citizens are supposed to be able to place their trust. What does it say about the justice system if Nolte’s lawyer felt that had he released information about the 16-year old’s sexual history, justice could be perverted, and a criminal could avoid his sentence? In the powerful climax, Bowden speaks the truth that has eluded the justice system, and the ideology implicit in many films of this era: “Just because she was promiscuous…didn’t give you the right to rape her!” Female sexuality threatens to reveal a rotten core of American justice and therefore, its values.

The imagery of the all-American home is often symbolic of these values, with a home invasion plot element featuring not only in Cape Fear , but in other films of the era that feature frank expressions of female desire. Scream (1996), whose iconic opening scene takes place in a house where Drew Barrymore flirts with her would-be killer, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Fatal Attraction (1987), all frame female sexuality as the impetus for the threats against the family unit. Cape Fear’s Cady, however, in one scene obnoxiously laughing out loud and long in a cinema, is a movie villain who clearly signals himself as such. With the combination of evangelism, knowledge of American law, and De Niro’s performance, he is an embodiment of where to direct blame.

Bowden’s previous infidelities and the strained mother-daughter relationship also attempts to break down the façade of the happy family unit, something which Fatal Attraction never fully can. Despite Michael Douglas’ adultery, it ultimately vindicates the demise of the ultimate ‘other woman’ Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Female sexuality always threatens to reveal what Cape Fear understands to be the already fragile mainstays of American society, and in this way, Scorsese’s film is imbued with iconoclasm. 

Furthermore, Gregory Peck’s cameo role (the original Sam Bowden) as Cady’s lawyer in a case against Bowden, can’t be viewed without recalling Peck’s defining role as Atticus Finch in 1962 (the same year as the release of the original Cape Fear). The events of To Kill A Mockingbird remind us of what failings of the court are possible, under the star-spangled banner, in the name of God, and justice.

Added into all of this is the dimension of the Hitchcock thriller; there’s the unmistakable grand orchestral sounds of Bernard Hermann, the homage to the twist in Psycho, and the expressionistic use of colour as in Vertigo. In both of these films, ‘deceitful’ women who seduce with ulterior motives, receive their comeuppance as (spoilers) neither Janet Leigh nor Kim Novak’s characters survive. Jessica Lange in Cape Fear evokes the ice-blonde appeal of a Hitchcock leading lady, while the film itself finds the women to be trapped by escalating machismo and the systems it influences; they’re neither helpless nor manipulative femme fatales. Where Hitchcock’s beloved MacGuffin is usually a pithy or otherwise unimportant catalyst for the events of the film, Cape Fear uses this device to critique the thriller genre’s origins in scapegoating female sexuality. With Scorsese’s keen eye for dissecting the damaging effects of toxic masculinity and the hypocritical foundations of institutions, Cape Fear becomes a scathing, entertaining and thought-provoking thriller, existing at a knowing intersection of eras and genres.

Image Credits: Bora Sistar via Flikr

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