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


Leesa Sylyski
B.B.A., C.L.A., and currently a law student at the University of Alberta.


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1962, 1991

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1962, 1991

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The legal system is demonstrated as completely inadequate to deal with the reprehensible dealings of a man with his family. Indeed, the system was never intended to deal with these types of actions. There is certainly no one for the daughter and wife to complain to about Sam's acts. The legal system has no method to return the trust that Sam has robbed from them. There is no justice, no evening the score.

Feature article

Law Portrayed as a Double-Edged Sword in Cape Fear

By Leesa Sylyski

The two versions of Cape Fear (Universal/Amblin/Cappa/Tribeca 1991, directed by Martin Scorsese), (Universal-International/Melville-Talbot 1962, directed by J. Lee Thompson), although similar in story line, are very different. This inevitably leads to different representations and critiques of the legal system. The characters in the films are unique as reflected in their interactions with the legal system. How is the legal system portrayed? In both films, the legal system is criticized by exposing its nature as a double-edged sword that is easily manipulated and inverted, becoming both a tyrant and a protector. However, the '91 film further depicts the legal system as fundamentally flawed when it is asked to provide justice and protection from dysfunction. I will deal with the two films separately.

The premise of the '62 film is that a lawyer, Sam, witnessed an assault on a woman in a parking lot as he walked by one evening. Sam testified against Max Cady and thus, helped to send Cady to jail for 14 years. Cady is finally released, blames Sam for his conviction, and sets out to terrorize Sam's family in order to deal Sam the same type of loss Max feels Sam gave him.

The '62 film shows how the legal system is not equally accessible to all. It is a tyrant that is used to harass Cady. It does not protect the rights against abuse and intimidation that citizens are afforded in theory. The law is used at the discretion of the Sheriff, at Sam's request. The legal system is criticized by highlighting its availability to powerful people, such as Sam, who have connections inside the police force. It is easily manipulated and thereby transformed from being a protector to tyrant.

Cady is arrested for suspicion of being poor, a criticism of how the law does, at this point in time, discriminate against the poor. However, he is not actually poor and so cannot be charged with vagrancy. He is also repeatedly brought into the station to be questioned, however paltry the excuse. Indeed, the police target him. Yet, they can go only so far in harassing Cady. The legal system is shown to be very flexible, but only to a point, as it eventually protects Cady when the police refuse to arrest him for what he might do. Thus, the double-edge is shown. For Cady, the legal system is inverted and is at once the tyrant and protector.

Cady responds then by using the law to his favor. He is protected by it as he harasses Sam by appearing too often in the presence of Sam's family. Cady uses it to disentitle Sam from protection. He pushes Sam until Sam can no longer find protection, and moves outside of the law to care for his family himself. Cady never actually does anything to physically hurt the family before he appears at Cape Fear, except possibly poison the family's dog. Sam tries to bribe Cady into leaving town, but is unsuccessful. Thugs are hired then to convince Cady to leave town one way or another, also to no avail. There simply is no legal reason why Cady needs to leave town. However, these acts lead to Sam's disbarment hearing. The legal community would likely not stand for one of its members to be acting outside the law in this manner. There is no professional or legal protection for Sam. He faces the law as his tyrant.

In a further criticism of the law, Sam was seeking protection and due to his connections had his own "hired gun", a police officer, come to Cape Fear. It is unlikely that an ordinary citizen could call the police and be provided with a private guard due to mere suspicion of the possibility of harm.

The law becomes a destructive force for Sam, until he employs elements of natural justice to protect his family. These elements include the right to defend one's self and family from harm. In doing so, he brings himself back into the fold of the legal system. The double-edge works both for and against Sam. At the end of the film, Sam does not kill Cady; he leaves punishment to the legal system. The viewer is left with the hope that the legal system is just and will punish wrongdoers. Sherwin states that "[l]aw clearly has its limitation; it cannot insulate us completely from the risk of antisocial violence. But it can do justice when such violence ultimately erupts" (R. K. Sherwin, "Cape Fear: Law's Inversion and Cathartic Justice" (1996) 30 University of San Francisco Law Review at 1025 [hereinafter, Sherwin]). The double-edged sword is left as a protector.

The '91 film contains the same elements of inversion, tyranny, and protection as are found in the '62 version. However, the double-edged sword is not only portrayed visually, by Cady's tattoo, but also symbolically in Cady. The critique of the legal system in the '91 version depicts it to be fundamentally flawed, as it cannot provide justice or protection from dysfunction.

Sam lives in a shadowy world where he chose in withholding evidence, not to zealously represent his client. Sam stated "Fourteen years ago, in this case, I had a report on the victim. . . . rape and aggravated sexual battery. Anyway I had a report on this victim and it came back that she was promiscuous. And I buried it . . . I didn't show it to the client, I didn't show it to the prosecution. But if you had seen what this guy had done to this girl. . . ." Nevins explains the legal background when he states [t]raditionally, when a man was charged with rape, all information about the woman's prior sexual activity was admissible either to show consent or to impeach her credibility as a witness. She could be cross-examined about sexual contact with the defendant or any third party, previous sexual partners could testify about their own affairs with her, and the defendant could introduce evidence as to her sexual reputation within the community. (F.M Nevins, "Cape Fear Dead Ahead: Transforming A Thrice-Told Tale Of Lawyers And Law" (2000) 24 Legal Studies Forum, online: Law in Popular Culture Collection - E-texts <http://www.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/lsf/nevinscape24.htm> (Date accessed: 4 March 2003) [hereinafter Nevins]).

In an inversion of the legal system, Sam by not submitting the requisite evidence and having the law deal with Cady, became judge and jury rather than the lawyer. Thus, Sam exists outside the legal system when it suits him. He is an inversion of protection and is thereby the tyrant.

These scenes portray the legal system as an unjust system where a rapist would once again go free. There is no legal justice for the rape victims, however natural justice, which is the finding of guilt due to Sam's intervention, prevails. It is interesting to note that the law has not been this way since the 1970's, thus this premise is a gross misrepresentation of the law in 1991(Nevins).

Cady soon manages to rattle Sam enough that Sam tries to persuade Cady to leave town by offering him money. Cady refuses and then proceeds to tape-record Sam's threat of harm. Sam does not want to hire thugs to dispense of Cady, believing this would be wrong, but the audience has already witnessed Sam's use of the legal system at his convenience. At this point in time, the system is not to his liking and so engages the thugs. This act, of course, is once again outside the bounds of the legal system, allowing Cady to come under the protection of the law and gain a restraining order against Sam.

Cady wants to impose his own sense of biblical justice on Sam and is facilitated by the restraining order. Sam looks to be completely wrong and states: "It's all fucked up… I mean, the law considers me more of a loose cannon than Max Cady." Sam is faced with an inversion of the law that is not his choice. He is tyrannized by the legal system while Cady's acts are enabled. He, rather than Cady, is now the criminal.
In the '91 film, Sam is a morally reprehensible character. His relationship with his wife and daughter are repugnant and they "are up to their necks in barely repressed, at times irrepressible, violence" (Sherwin, supra at 1031). Instead of Sam being the loving husband he was in the '61 version, he is now inverted and is the tyrant of his wife, Leigh. The viewer is shown that his wife knows he has had affairs at least twice. Leigh has previously suffered from depression, and sometimes lashes out physically at him when instead of acknowledging that he could be the cause of her depression, he blames her for having been in a poor emotional state. For Leigh, there is no justice for Sam's deceit.

In two scenes, the viewer is shown the barely repressed tension between Sam and his daughter, Danny. Firstly, when at the beginning of the film, the family is getting a snack after watching a movie. Sam playfully wrestles with his daughter, until his arm becomes wrapped too tightly around Danny's neck and she begins to cough. Secondly, in a scene in Danny's room, Sam tells her to "put on some clothes" as she is no longer a child. As Danny smiles, he roughly pushes his hand over her mouth and presses her into the bed. She starts to cry and Sam leaves the room. Sam is not the protective father he was in the '61 version. Sherwin asks the reader to "[c]onsider Danny's relationship with her father, a relationship that is blocked on the one hand by his repressed eroticized and aggressive impulses toward her, …and hampered on the other by his repressed guilt, a guilt that may well be driven, at least in part, by Sam's own impermissible attraction to his daughter's raw sexuality" (Sherwin, supra at 1031). He is now inverted and is the incestuous tyrant. There is no protection or justice for Danny against these repulsive acts.

The legal system is demonstrated as completely inadequate to deal with the reprehensible dealings of a man with his family. Indeed, the system was never intended to deal with these types of actions. There is certainly no one for the daughter and wife to complain to about Sam's acts. The legal system has no method to return the trust that Sam has robbed from them. There is no justice, no evening the score.

The family finds Sam vile, as does Cady. In Cady's own mind, justice would be served by punishing Sam for his loss. Cady believes he had lost his family when he was sent to jail and thus seeks to take away Sam's family. He intends to impose a biblical eye-for-an-eye type of justice on Sam. It is depicted to be necessary to resort to another type of justice to punish Sam's failings, for the satisfaction of both the family and Cady.

The final scenes are of very powerful struggles between Sam, Cady, and the family. They can also be seen as conflict between natural justice for Sam (ie. the death of Cady and salvation of the family), biblical justice for Cady (ie. the death of Sam and/or violation of his family), and the legal system that completely failed the family. The scenes clearly demonstrate how the legal system fails in dealing with morally reprehensible acts, yet shows that other means of dealing with vile acts are not necessarily any better. The outcome of biblical justice would not serve the family, as it would not deal with the questionable morals of Sam and the family would still be violated. The outcome of natural justice, which with speculating, may have been to have Cady drowned, would be insufficient for the family, as Sam would again escape punishment. The film shows the difficulty of imposing a suitable a solution for Cady, Sam, and the family.

Cady is saved from being killed by Sam by a sudden shift of the wind, and instead is drowned at sea. Sherwin states that "[i]n the end we are left with fateful justice, justice as chance"(Sherwin, supra at 1042). The viewer is left unsatisfied. The double-edged sword remains a tool of justice, but not a provider of justice or protection. It is easily manipulated and inverted, becoming both a tyrant and a protector. There are no answers to the failings of the legal system.

Posted April 15, 2003

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