Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Katie Reese, B.A.
Law student at the University of Alberta


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This is a conflict between men in which women have no place to interfere in the conflict as more than objects. In both films, they are not people but just weapons against Sam.

Scorsese's Cape Fear: The Triumph of Stereotypes

by Katie Reese

The 1962 version of Cape Fear depicts a battle between good and evil where a virtuous lawyer must abandon the positive law for the natural law in saving his family from the menacing figure of unjustified revenge. Alongside substantial legal critique of a lack of protection for victims, the 1962 film reveals patriarchal discourse on gender relations and the nuclear family. In 1991, Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear. His is not merely a revisiting or homage to the first film but is an attempt at an actual reconstruction, or what Michael Arnzen describes as metanarrative . Arnzen explains 'metanarrative' in terms of postmodern deconstruction and plurality. The postmodern effect of a metanarrative is to take the meanings of a known story and to invert them into entirely new meanings, subverting the original message. Scorsese attempts to implode the message of stereotyping in the first film but his efforts are rendered ineffectual because he merely replaces this same message with a modernized version of the same stereotypes of patriarch, family women, mistresses, and prison inmates that inhabited the first film.

The family dynamic is no longer the harmonious "Leave it to Beaver" family of the first Bowdens, but now includes the displaced teen with budding sexuality and the dysfunctional communication that one expects in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Similarly, our notions of the terrifying menace vary with our understanding of social stereotypes. In the 1962 version, we know that Max Cady is the villain from our initial introduction to him at the courthouse. When he passes by a woman who drops her book, Cady deliberately does not pick it up for her. Later in the film in a meeting with Sam, he orders twelve-year-old scotch twice, a very ungentlemanly way of ordering. In both instances, breaking normative codes of masculine etiquette tells the viewer that he is a menace. For a modern viewer, the stereotypes of the 1962 film are laughable but the question must be posed if the second film has done anything to overcome those stereotypes.

Scorsese's Cady, although updated in stereotyping, does nothing to challenge stereotypes of the psychological villain or of prison culture of the early Nineties. Even Cady's underwear involves a stereotype. When taken in for questioning and intimidation, police strip search Cady, revealing slinky, red, animal patterned underwear indicative of the nature of a sexual predator. Similarly, Cady's prison posters depict Stalin and Christian iconography of vengeance, and his books consist of revolutionary philosophy and the Bible. The imagery here plays on the viewer's ability to recognize these sorts of academic symbols and reveals Scorsese's attempt to create an elevated villain of psychological complexity. The Christian vengeance becomes an important part of his plot against Sam and is reiterated by the tattoos covering his arms and back, but these are merely indicative of a terrifying stereotype of religious zealots of the South combined with the tattooed nature of prison culture and assumptions about hardened inmates.

Richard Sherwin contends that Scorsese's film is much more complicated and revealing than Thomson's as Scorsese emphasizes the similarities between Sam and Cady in their aggression toward women and in their ability to kill. Although this attempt to the blur the lines of hero and villain is clearly made, Scorsese ultimately reinforces Sam as the legitimate patriarch just as Thomson did for Gregory Peck thirty years earlier. Despite some complication with moral ambiguity in the legal profession and reference to Sam's infidelities, Sam clearly does the "right" thing throughout the film. In fact, these changes and fall from grace have more to do with stereotypical depictions of the time and what we expect to see on screen in lawyers and in family dynamics of the early Nineties than with imploding our conception of Sam as hero. The second scene of the movie after Dani's prologue presents Sam with a lawyer client at the courthouse. An interchange between them reveals that Sam manipulated the law for his friend's interests, but the manipulation actually does justice. In the middle of a divorce settlement, the son-in-law hid assets to avoid fairness and the extension that Sam obtained for the law partner's daughter allows them to privately investigate to protect those assets and to protect the natural law in equal distribution of divorce assets. Similarly, there is minor moral discomfort when Sam reveals to his partner how he buried the promiscuity report, but, while there is this professional ambiguity, Sam redeems himself by leaving the public defender's office to take up civil practice, thereby repenting of any wrong done in not being true to his profession.

Also, while there are allusions to the fact that Sam makes major mistakes and is not the pure hero that Gregory Peck was, this is neither emphasized nor directly shown on screen, and the implication is that Sam is actually a good guy and hero. His infidelities never occur on screen. There is the flirtation with Lori but he tells her at the car that he cannot continue to flirt with her, reemphasizing his role as husband and father. She appears at the bar upset that he has stood her up while, unbeknownst to her but beknownst to the viewer, he works on protecting his family. There is relief in knowing that he is more committed to his family than he is to the "other woman."
Similarly, after establishing that only he can win against Cady, Scorsese does not allow the viewer to blame Sam for Cady's death. Sam fights Cady to the death in a somewhat primordial battle of masculinity but then the viewer is not even given the opportunity to condemn him for smashing Cady's head with the rock because natural forces do it for him and Sam remains morally blameless. Mitchum's death is certainly more satisfying than Gregory Peck's Sam sending Cady to prison but the idea is the same; neither director can bring himself to truly stain Sam's hands. Essentially, Sam retains the role of patriarch, the unblemished hero. In the end, Sam defends his family at all costs and wins. Danielle has a moment of mental and physical acuity to douse Cady in lighter fluid and Leigh almost succeeds in her cunning play at getting Cady to empathize with her but Sam is the protector of his family, the successful patriarch and, ultimately, he must protect the family for this to be a legitimate victory.

Just as the attempt to complicate Sam holds little weight, so does the attempt to make Cady more sympathetic to the viewer. He cannot be a true avenger with whom the audience identifies because his is the 'straw man' reaction, a reaction not to injustice but to deserved punishment. Scorsese could have presented a different legal twist like an identification or actual consensual problem but he did not because that could create empathy in the viewer for Cady. Perhaps the most terrifying scene in the film and the closest that Scorsese gets to humanizing Cady is when Cady lures Danielle into the school theatre. The imminent physical threat to her makes the viewer squirm in terror and then when we realize that he will not harm her, the mental manipulation and connection that he makes with her is a powerful menace, and is both more tantalizing and terrifying than the initial physical threat. However, as Francis Nevins has pointed out, Scorsese drops this very successful manipulation of the character and the audience when Cady becomes an invincible horror cliché, riding under the car and later refusing to die. His charming discourse on life and emotion is not, as Sherwin suggests, wisdom nor truth learned from suffering. Rather, the viewer always knows that his prophecy is that of Judas Iscariot, the ultimate blasphemer. And whatever sympathy we glean from the knowledge that he would have gotten off at trial for a crime that he was guilty of is completely negated by the ridiculousness of what ensues in his pursuit of the Bowdens and in his quest to make Sam "understand loss." Scorsese does not present us with the disintegration of the wholly other as the postmodern metanarrative requires, but Cady is rather a hyped-up, stock horror character.

One of the most obvious stereotypes of the 1962 Cape Fear is that of the image of the helpless, domestic woman. For example, Sam thanks God for the fact that Peggy's innocence and fragility has never been witness to the harshness of the male courtroom and cross-examination. Scorsese had the opportunity to deconstruct this image of the domesticity but he did not and his film instead perpetuates female oppression. Leigh has a job but she does not leave the home. Likewise, their luxurious home is certainly not provided for from her salary but from that of the true breadwinner, the patriarch. Leigh's femininity is also a character weakness. Sam refers to her fragility when they argue about his past lovers. She calls him arrogant for staying in the marriage for her sake but there is an inclination to believe this assertion.

This is a conflict between men in which women have no place to interfere in the conflict as more than objects. In both films, they are not people but just weapons against Sam. This is even more apparent in the 1991 film when Sam actually has a personal relationship with Lori. Because he knows her, and even has a romantic connection with her, Lori's rape is directly a message and weapon against Sam. Thomson's Cady uses Diane Taylor as a weapon too, but this is an indirect message without the same kind of menace that comes from entering one's personal sphere and from taking a woman that the audience knows and likes and changing them into nothing more than an objectified threat to our masculine hero.

Similarly, while the dysfunctional family unit replaces the utopian 1962 Bowdens, Scorsese upholds the nuclear family by reinforcing the inviolability of women within the legitimate family. Just like Diane Taylor, Lori can be raped and beaten because she is the mistress, not the wife. Cady meets Leigh at the mailbox, enters the house when she is home alone and has every opportunity to violate her but does not. Similarly, Dani is most vulnerable when she is with him in the theatre. When he does not harm or even fully seduce her, the viewer remains terrified but ultimately knows that he will never truly harm her. Her virginity and role as daughter of Sam make her invincible against the threat of violation.

The presentation of women as victims and domestic objects in Scorsese's film does not even attract the legal criticism that the 1962 film extends. The legal premise that the promiscuity report was admissible is nonsensical as rape-shield laws have been common in the United States since the mid-Seventies. Similarly, acquittal could not have been certain had there been a simple medical analysis of her injuries providing circumstantial evidence of a lack of consent. Contrastingly, the 1962 film actually engages in criticism of real laws prejudicing women. When Cady explains to Peggy that coercion of her sexual consent through a bargain not to harm Peggy would be considered legitimate consent, he is legally correct for that time period. Similarly, Diane Taylor fears that her name will be published for her family to read and that a small sentence and lack of enforcement of restraining orders will leave her with an increased risk of retaliation. The film criticizes the system's reluctance or inability to protect victims. Some of these elements appear in the 1991 version, but, without any basis in actual law, they lack poignancy and voice for women. When we condemn Sam for burying the report, we effectually, give credence to the notion that denying such voice and protection for female victims is legitimate.

Scorsese's only real success at inversion is in his deliberate casting of Gregory Peck as the buffoon prosecutorial lawyer and Robert Mitchum as the police enforcer. Sherwin calls this "postmodern hyperreality". Similarly, the opening sequences and uncertainty in Dani's prologue paired with the negative inversion of light in Leigh's bedroom create indeterminacy between reality and fantasy. The entire aesthetic of the film has a postmodern flavor that is compelling but fails to deconstruct enough to become a metanarrative because of its inability to step out of stereotypes set by the first Cape Fear. Stereotypes reinforce the moral framework of gender and power relations, and the ultimate closure in the film with the death of Cady and the cyclical return to Dani's reminiscence affirm that all is well with the world. There is no inversion here.

Posted January 6, 2004

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