A Series of Crimes: Cape Fear, by Aaron Pinkston
Martin Scorsese has built his legendary career on anti-heroes and criminals. From Goodfellas, his revision of the classic gangster film, to the upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has consistently returned to lives of crime. Cape Fear probably isn’t one of the first films Scorsese fans would point to, nor is it the most definitive of his crime films. But looking at it through the history of the crime film, it raises some intensely complicated questions about morality, law and guilt. Overall, it is a fairly loyal remake of the 1962 classic, though its view of how criminals work in the world of 1991 is strikingly different.
Cape Fear is centered on two poles representing opposite sides of the law. One end has former defense lawyer and family-man Sam Bowden, with Nick Nolte taking on the role originally played by the Hollywood stand-in for upstanding, All-American hero-lawyer Gregory Peck. Fourteen years previously, Bowden was defending alleged rapist Max Cady (Robert De Niro), whose crime was so heinous that the lawyer buried evidence that may have provided an acquittal — apparently, the victim was known as a promiscuous woman, a fact that doesn’t outright prove Cady’s innocence, but maybe was enough to get him off. Now released from prison, the determined ex-con is driven to stalk the man who had done him wrong, preying on Bowden and his nuclear family.
The trick of this update, however, is that Bowden isn’t the cookie-cutter hero that we are conditioned to root for, but a snivelling and contemptible man. His suppression of evidence that could have set Cady free is the least of his sins. He tries to do everything he can to protect himself and his family, and that’s basically commendable, but he does everything in the wrong way. He smothers his wife and teenage daughter, controlling them beyond the means of keeping them safe, with subtle hints of abuse. As Cady comes closer and closer, their familial bonds break apart, bringing forth Bowden’s history of infidelity. Hell, even though I don’t think the narrative really supports this, I like to think that Bowden poisons his wife’s dog in order to catch Cady. And, even after all that, there is a constant smugness and superiority that he exudes, making him impossible to like. It’s a gutsy performance by Nolte, playing a character who could have easily been the Gregory Peck hero. Instead, he only can be seen as a protagonist because of his counterpart’s madcap take.
There is no doubt that Max Cady is a psychopath. He is absolutely a monster, with nearly supernatural abilities, and worse yet, serious illusions of grandeur. Did he ultimately commit the crime that put him behind bars? The film doesn’t really answer that question, but I think the indication is an affirmative. And still, because he perceives that his lawyer didn’t do everything possible to get a “not guilty” verdict (let alone actively ensure that a serious defense couldn’t be made), he is owed some sort of retribution. It almost doesn’t matter whether or not he committed the crime.
Cady’s “rehabilitation” only drives him further into darkness. It’s a horrible experience, but one that conditions his body and soul to become unbreakable, conditioning him to pull off this insane revenge plot. Even if he was truly dangerous before going to prison, the system is what made him a true monster — providing him with the time to mull over his revenge and an excuse to justify his future actions within his mind. We’ve seen other criminals in this series experience prison and come out no worse for the wear, but that’s certainly not the case with Max Cady. Scorsese’s pessimistic view of the justice system extends much further as Cady begins his rampage. Because the criminal is smart enough to know exactly when to and when not to break the law, always knowing how far to take the situation, there isn’t much law enforcement can do for his victims. The private investigator hired by Bowden criticizes the police as slow and messy. It’s difficult for the justice system to prevent crime, only respond to it, which gives Cady a perfect opportunity to psychologically drain Bowden and his family before he ultimately pounces.
Cape Fear brings up an interesting distinction between doing something wrong and doing something illegal. This argument can be as simple as Danielle Bowden getting in trouble for smoking a little marijuana — an act that Sam Bowden agrees isn’t all that serious, noting that he and his wife aren’t themselves innocent. But, since society has deemed this act illegal, she has to be punished. Bowden’s actions that put away his client were certainly illegal, but were they wrong? Putting away an obviously dangerous man, even if that inevitably makes him more dangerous, seems to be an easy argument that maybe it wasn’t a bad decision. But because he broke the ethics of his job and broke the law, Bowden was supposed to be punished, and Cady sees himself as the man most capable of the job. Cape Fear is working through different levels of morality throughout and that is where the film is the most satisfying.
The relationship between Bowden and Cady is also a bizarre look at the guilty conscience. One could read this film literally, with Cady doing all these twisted and super-villainy things, but it can also be read as a larger metaphor. Even though Bowden has a upstanding visage as a well-to-do lawyer with the perfect seeming nuclear family, he is technically a criminal and he knows that deep down. There are certainly degrees of criminality, and he would fall far lower on the scale than Cady would, but he literally can’t escape the mistake he made 14 years ago. When Cady comes back around, everything that Bowden could feel guilty for raises its head tears his life open. I don’t know if Scorsese was approaching the film in this way, though he certainly plays with guilt through religious imagery in most of his film, Cape Fear included. It’s an interesting new ground for this series, as all of the criminals have been punished by the end, Bowden may be the first that feels a tinge sorry about what he did (depends on how you read the ending of Angels with Dirty Faces). Not that what he did was wrong, per se, but it is obviously a regrettable act.